Security forces fired tear gas against protesters in Venezuela on Monday forcing hundreds of people to evacuate buildings as the gas seeped into homes, schools and a hospital.
The protest turned violent when demonstrators were blocked by national guardsmen while trying to deliver a letter expressing their disdain for socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s push to rewrite the nation’s constitution.
Protesters tried to get around the officers by finding another route but were pushed back by heavy clouds of tear gas in a raucous exchange that continued for more than an hour, witnesses said.
Juan Diego Amado, an anti-government activist, said he entered one building housing a foundation housing about 300 children and elderly residents and found many coughing and in tears after inhaling the fumes.
Volunteers rushed children still in diapers, others in strollers and the elderly in wheelchairs out of the building to hospitals for treatment. Amado said he helped about four children get to clear air, describing the image of them gasping to breathe as “heartbreaking for anyone.”
The clash came as Venezuelans unhappy with food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime were out in the streets again Monday after more than a month of protests demanding elections. The unrest began after the Supreme Court stripped congress of its last powers, a decision it later reversed amid a torrent of international criticism.
Tensions have heightened since Maduro began a push last week to hold a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders charge the move is a ploy to keep the president and his allies in power.
At least 38 people have been killed and more than 750 injured in the unrest.
Sixty people were injured on Monday as protests continued in the capital, said Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor.
Meanwhile, the opposition boycotted a meeting on Monday to discuss Maduro’s plan for a new popular assembly, preferring to protest in the streets.
In familiar scenes from five weeks of unrest, youths with gas masks and makeshift shields faced off with police and National Guard troops in Caracas, after hundreds of demonstrators were stopped from reaching government offices.
No representatives of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition went to the Miraflores presidential palace on Monday despite an invitation from Education Minister Elias Jaua who is leading the constituent assembly process.
“It’s a trick to keep themselves in power,” said Julio Borges, leader of the National Assembly legislature where the opposition won a majority in 2015.
“The only way to resolve this crisis is with a free vote.”
Local rights group Penal Forum said 1,845 people had been detained since April 1 over the protests, with 591 still behind bars. Opposition leaders said 200 of those were being processed by military tribunals in Carabobo state.