Caracas (AFP) - New clashes erupted between Venezuelan riot police and President Nicolas Maduro's opponents, inflaming tensions after a day of deadly unrest in the beleaguered oil-rich nation.
Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up thousands of marchers as they reached a vital freeway in Caracas, then edged back slightly as masked protesters pelted them with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Demonstrators vowed not to flinch in their campaign to oust Maduro, despite three weeks of protest violence that has left eight people dead, including three on Wednesday.
"Sure we're tired, but we've got to stand strong. I'm ready to take to the streets every day if I have to," said 22-year-old student Aquiles Aldazoro.
Protesters set fire to trash bins and tore down a billboard to barricade themselves in, as officers fired water cannon at them and a police helicopter hovered overhead.
"I don't care if I inhale gas, I don't care if I die. We have to put a stop to this murdering, repressing government," said Natasha Borges, 17.
One protester, completely naked except for sneakers, walked up to police and shouted: "Please, stop gas-bombing us."
Another draped in a Venezuelan flag defiantly marched up to an armored truck and stared it down.
Clashes also broke out in the flashpoint western city of San Cristobal, Maracaibo in the northwest and Valencia in central Venezuela.
The opposition called for new protests, a "march of silence" in all parts of the country on Saturday and a national road blockage on Monday.
- Escalating crisis -
Protesters blame Maduro -- heir of the leftist "Bolivarian revolution" launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999 -- for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Maduro says the protests seeking to oust him are backed by the United States.
On Thursday, Maduro said the opposition was ready to begin a political dialogue, which his opponents denied.
"Today they responded in four different ways that they were ready to begin talks," the president said at an official event.
But the opposition stood firm that the only dialogue possible would be on calling elections.
Henrique Capriles, the former opposition presidential candidate, posted a message on Twitter calling Maduro a "dictator" and a "mythomaniac."
"No one believes him, however, about dialogue, which the Venezuelans will do with their VOTE!" Capriles tweeted.
Pressure on Maduro has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin.
The crisis has escalated since March 30, when Venezuela's Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took part in Wednesday's marches.
A 17-year-old boy and a 23-year-old woman died after they were shot in the head by masked gunmen. Maduro's camp said a soldier outside Caracas was also killed.
The opposition accuses Maduro of letting state forces and gangs of armed thugs violently repress demonstrators.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said one person had been arrested for the soldier's death, which he called a premeditated "act of terror."
Prosecutors say they are investigating the other two protest deaths.
- Looters cart off food -
Numerous businesses and universities remained closed -- some in tacit support of the protests, others for fear of a repeat of the previous day's violence.
Looting erupted amid the chaos Wednesday. In the Paradise neighborhood in western Caracas, looters carted off food and beer from a series of ransacked businesses, residents said.
In poor neighborhoods traditionally loyal to Maduro, some protesters have cited hunger as their reason for joining calls for his ouster.
The escalation of Venezuela's political crisis since late March has galvanized the often divided opposition in its efforts to force Maduro from power.
The president, in turn, has urged his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the "revolution."
International concern continues to mount.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday urged all sides in Venezuela to make "concrete gestures" to ease the tension.
The European Union called the deaths of protesters "highly regrettable" and urged all sides to "de-escalate."
- Elections? -
The opposition has called for the military -- a pillar of Maduro's power -- to abandon him.
But the defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, has pledged the army's "unconditional loyalty."
According to a survey by pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The president said Wednesday he is ready for elections to put the "interventionist right-wingers in their place."
Regional elections due in December were indefinitely postponed and there is still no date for local polls due this year. The next presidential election is due in December 2018.