CARACAS (USATODAY.com) - Security forces raided the headquarters of a major Venezuelan opposition party accused of fomenting recent violence, according to eyewitnesses, after last week issuing an arrest warrant for the party's leader Leopoldo López on charges of murder and terrorism.
López is a hardline member of the country's opposition and has backed recent student protests. However, he has been in hiding since the arrest warrant was issued.
Critics of the government suspect that it is doing it utmost to capture him before a major march planned for Tuesday in which the 42-year-old, once touted as the country's next president, has said he will surrender to authorities.
The offices of his Popular Will party were stormed on Monday by what appear to be security forces in a video released by the party as well as eyewitnesses spoken to by USA Today.
"Four guys, dressed entirely in black, violently broke down the doors. They weren't police; they weren't National Guard," said volunteer Lisett Esteves, 24. "They asked for leaders of the party. Intelligence agents then came in with a warrant to take away all of our equipment."
Esteves, and other eyewitnesses, said that mobile phones and computers were taken and tear gas was released within the building when the attackers met resistance. The video showed men brandishing guns forcing their way into the party's offices. A broken door at the scene corroborated the video.
David Smolansky, the mayor of El Hatillo, one of Caracas' municipalities, was also inside during the raid. "They were looking for Leopoldo and all the leaders of our political party," he said. "It's more proof that in Venezuela we don't have democracy."
Protests have gone on throughout this month across Venezuela, coming to a crescendo this weekend in Caracas where thousands took to the streets to oppose the country's socialist government. Authorities repeatedly used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.
"I've got nothing to fear. I've done nothing wrong," López said in a video released on YouTube on Sunday evening, calling for the march to be peaceful. "If there is an illegal decision to jail me, I will accept it... We're on the right side of history, the right side of justice."
Earlier on Monday, foreign minister Elías Jaua confirmed that three US consular officials had just 48 hours to leave Venezuela, accusing them of conspiring with the country's opposition.
In a statement released on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is "deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week's protests in Venezuela."
Kerry said the administration is "particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo López."
The government here described the statement as part of Washington's attempts to "promote and legitimize the destabilization of Venezuelan democracy."