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Venezuela opposition lawmaker barred from Capitol

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FABIOLA SANCHEZ and HANNAH DREIER | April 1, 2014 06:52 PM EST | AP


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A leader of Venezuela's opposition was barred from entering the National Assembly on Tuesday after hundreds of supporters rallied to protest her recent ouster from the legislature.

Maria Corina Machado promised supporters she would keep fighting for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro, then she mounted a motorcycle and headed off to the National Assembly, her eyes running from tear gas that police fired to keep the crowd from following her.

When Machado encountered more riot police standing outside the congressional palace, she quickly jumped back on the motorcycle and sped away.

In the buildup to Tuesday's protest, many wondered if Machado's return to the legislative building would end in her arrest.

The wealthy, well-traveled conservative has been a key figure leading the anti-government protests that have rocked Venezuela for seven weeks. The other high-profile opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, has been imprisoned since Feb. 18. A sea of protesters accompanied him when he turned himself in on charges of provoking the unrest.

Lawmakers from Maduro's socialist party stripped Machado of her seat last week after she denounced alleged human rights abuses by her government at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington. Venezuela's high court on Monday backed her ouster.

On Tuesday, Machado told the crowd that the Maduro administration had committed an unprecedented crime against the sovereignty of the people.

"Not only have they destroyed democracy in Venezuela, they're dismantled the republic," she said.

Her supporters, wearing white T-shirts and hats in the bold primary colors of the Venezuelan flag, chanted "courageous!" when Machado said she would return to the National Assembly and defend her mandate. As the crowd began marching with her, riot police stopped them with tear gas canisters.

When Machado got to the congressional building, she encountered mostly pro-government protesters, some of whom shoved her.

Machado, 46, is an opposition figure who government loyalists love to hate. An engineer by training, she was photographed in 2005 shaking hands with U.S. President George W. Bush in the Oval Office, an image still shown whenever she is chastised on state television. But her worst offense, in the government's eyes, was her co-founding of a group that supported an unsuccessful referendum to recall Hugo Chavez, Maduro's fiery, beloved predecessor.

To her supporters, she is a sophisticated and fearless spokeswoman for those who blame Venezuela's economic struggles and high crime on the socialist government.

On Tuesday, the human rights group Amnesty International warned that government security forces may be committing abuses against protesters. The Maduro administration says it is investigating several reports of cruel treatment.

Protesters at Machado's rally held signs alleging police brutality, another complaint that has added to protesters' outrage over high inflation, violent crime and chronic food shortages.

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Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier