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Policeman killed as clashes erupt in Venezuela after security forces break up protester camps

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CARACAS, Venezuela - Young people clashed with police in the streets Thursday in an angry response to Venezuelan security forces dismantling four tent cities maintained by anti-government demonstrators, and officials reported one officer killed and another injured.

The bloodshed came after hundreds of police and troops arrested 243 student protesters during pre-dawn raids on camps in front of the offices of the United Nations and in better-off neighbourhoods in the capital largely opposed to President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres presented homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails that he said were seized at the camps and used to carry out "terrorist" acts against security forces.

"This shows there was an entire logistical apparatus in place," Rodriguez Torres said, seeking to counter claims that the anti-government movement has been peaceful and spontaneous.

Dozens of anti-government activists erected barricades throughout the day to express solidarity for the jailed students, setting off clashes with police. One officer was killed and another wounded by gunfire. Maduro said the officer was killed by a sniper while police cleared the streets of debris in the leafy Chacao district where the U.N. office is.

"He was protecting the community of Chacao and was killed vilely by these right-wing assassins," Maduro said at an event in Caracas to deliver homes to low-income families.

The death brought to 42 the number of people on all sides who've been killed since anti-government protests began to roil the South American nation in February.

The dismantling of the camps was announced just hours before a top opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was scheduled to appear in court after being in custody since February. The hearing on whether he should begin trial on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests was suspended and he was taken back to a military prison almost as soon as he arrived at the courthouse downtown.

Witnesses near the U.N. office said hundreds of National Guardsmen began arriving after 3 a.m. and were greeted angrily by neighbours who launched objects and insults from nearby balconies.

Rodriguez Torres said the operation was carried out cleanly, with security forces relying on the element of surprise rather than aggressive force to round up the protesters.

He said the detainees would be charged, but didn't say when that would happen. Under Venezuelan law, prosecutors have 48 hours to bring detainees before a judge and either charge or release them, but in recent months officials have often ignored the rules and held protesters incommunicado for longer periods.

Hours after the raids, a scattered detritus of shoes, clothes and destroyed banners littered the streets where the makeshift campground once stood. A few dozen neighbours built barricades to block traffic, demanding the release of the students.

"How can this be allowed when the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest," said Anais Serrano, a real estate agent. "These kids weren't anything bad."

The raids came as the U.S. Congress began debate Thursday on economic sanctions against top Venezuelan officials.

The Obama administration argued at a Senate committee hearing that sanctions would be premature while dialogue continues between Maduro's government and some members of the opposition.

Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said some opposition leaders have urged the United States not to go forward with sanctions.

"They have asked us not to pursue them at this time," Jacobson said.

The legislation in both chambers is relatively modest. It centres on freezing assets and banning visas for Venezuelan officials who crushed anti-government protests. It would also boost aid for pro-democracy and civil society groups.

Anti-Maduro groups are divided on how much to engage with the government. Students and hardliners are boycotting the talks, which they consider a ploy by Maduro to deflect foreign criticism of his handling of the crisis.

Maduro's administration has grown increasingly fed up with the demonstrations and last week announced it had arrested 58 foreigners, including an American, on suspicion of inciting violent street protests against the government.

Opponents have repeatedly rejected Maduro's frequent allegations that the protests are seeking his overthrow, saying he is trying to distract attention from grueling economic crisis marked by 57 per cent inflation and record shortages of basic goods.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the sanctions legislation in the Senate, said the message that penalties would carry is important. The move comes as human rights groups accuse Venezuelan security officials of arresting, torturing and even killing unarmed demonstrators.

"This is happening in our very own hemisphere," Rubio said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He said sanctions should target anyone responsible for human rights violations, refusing to rule out Maduro as a potential target.

Action now would show the U.S. is "firmly on the side of the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people," Rubio said.

___

Associated Press writers Luis Alonso Lugo and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

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