June 17, 2015 / 1:29 PM / 2 years ago

Venezuela students join opposition leader's hunger-strike protest

Supporters of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez wear face masks to represent their hunger strike in solidarity with Lopez as they demand his liberation, outside the National Electoral Council (CNE) offices in Caracas, June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

CARACAS (Reuters) - Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has lost 12 kilograms (26 pounds) on a partial hunger-strike now in its fourth week, his family said, while students around the country escalate similar protests in solidarity.

Lopez, 44, who heads the hardline Popular Will party and is charged with masterminding violence during mass protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s government last year, began his action in a military jail at the end of May.

Decried by Maduro as a “monster” and puppet of U.S. plots to overthrow socialism in Venezuela, he demands freedom for other detained activists and a date for parliamentary elections due by year-end.

“He looks skinny, he’s lost 12 kilograms and is down to 65, but he’s staying firm,” Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, said in an interview at the gated family home in leafy east Caracas.

She visited him in prison over the weekend.

“At first I asked him not to do this, but Leopoldo wanted to unmask Maduro and today the whole world knows what is happening here, the lack of basic rights,” added Tintori, whose husband was on his 24th day of protest on Wednesday.

CHURCH CAMP

Opposition parties say around 100 others have also begun partial hunger-strikes - taking water and serum but not solids - in public places and jails.

Seventeen of them are camped outside a Catholic Church in Caracas, chatting and playing dominoes to pass time while lying under a tarpaulin cover in case it rains.

“We want Venezuelans to understand there are young people ready to give their lives for liberty, democracy and sovereignty,” said law student Erick Santana, 24, who lost eight kilograms (17 pounds) and could only walk with a cane after 20 days on fluids only.

The hunger strike protest is far smaller than last year’s opposition demonstrations which grew to command several thousand youths at sit-ins in squares and streets.

And the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, which polls say could win the National Assembly in the upcoming election, is split as to the wisdom of street tactics and hunger-strikes.

“Venezuelans are very conformist,” complained protester Didi Zambrano, 20, an engineering student on his second day of a partial hunger-strike, adding that economic problems were dampening Venezuelans’ political zeal.

“If the government makes them queue in order to eat, they’re not going to go without food to be with us,” Zambrano said, referring to widespread shortages and lines outside shops.

Editing by Girish Gupta and W Simon

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