By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Oré
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition renewed nationwide protests on Thursday to pressure the government of President Nicolas Maduro to hold elections and improve a collapsing economy, a day after three people were killed in similar demonstrations.
However, crowds were smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets of Caracas and provincial cities on Wednesday, the latest and largest in several weeks of protests against what Maduro's opponents condemn as a lurch toward dictatorship.
Government officials dismiss the protests, characterized by street barricades and clashes with security forces, as violent and lawless efforts to overthrow Maduro's leftist government with the backing of ideological adversaries in Washington.
The opposition counters that Maduro, deeply unpopular as Venezuelans grapple with triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and basic consumer goods, is seeking to stay in power indefinitely by barring opposition leaders from office and quashing independent state institutions.
At around midday on Thursday, a few thousand people protested in Caracas, although opposition lawmakers accused security forces of using excessive tear gas and force to block the marches.
"It's time for the armed forces to realize that they're protecting corrupt leaders and not the Venezuelan people," said opposition lawmaker Jorge Millan, who represents part of the poor hilltop Caracas neighborhood of 23 de Enero, once a government stronghold.
The opposition had called on its supporters to gather at about two dozen points around Caracas and march to the office of the state ombudsman, a human rights activist, just as they tried to do on Wednesday.
The current wave of marches, the most sustained protests against Maduro since 2014, has sparked regular melees in which youths and National Guard troops exchange volleys of rocks and tear gas. There were also late-night barricades and some looting in Caracas' middle class neighborhood of El Paraiso on Wednesday night.
Two students and a National Guard sergeant were killed in Wednesday's demonstrations, bringing the death toll in demonstrations this month to eight. Rights group Penal Forum said more than 500 people were arrested in relation to Wednesday's protest and 334 remained in detention.
"We are concerned about the latest developments in Venezuela and urge that all efforts be made to lower tensions and prevent further clashes," a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement on Thursday.
Maduro, 54, called on his backers to stage counter-demonstrations in Caracas on Wednesday. Supporters of the president, who was elected in 2013 and assumed the socialist mantle of late leader Hugo Chavez, say the opposition's street protests are violent disruptions of public order that exceed the rights of free assembly and would not be tolerated in any other country.
The renewed wave of protests was sparked by a Supreme Court move in March to assume the powers of the opposition-led Congress, a move that it largely reversed a few days later. They were further fueled when the government barred the opposition's best-known leader, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from holding public office.
"This is the moment," said Raquel Belfort, a 42-year-old protester in wealthier eastern Caracas on Thursday, sporting a hat in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan flag.
"People are sick of this.... we've touched rock bottom. I think if we take to the streets every day we'll end this government."
The push to keep up constant demonstrations increasingly mirrors protests in 2014 in which Maduro's critics barricaded streets and battled police for close to three months. That effort ultimately faded amid protester fatigue and a heavy state crackdown.
But the sharp deterioration of the economy, which has put many foods and medicines out of the reach of the average citizen, and a more organized and united opposition coalition have injected fresh energy into the current protests.
Maduro critics increasingly doubt that the ruling Socialist Party, which was soundly defeated in 2015 legislative elections, will allow for free and fair elections. The ballot for state governors has been delayed since last year and elections authorities have not announced when it will be held.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Christian Veron in Caracas, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Girish Gupta and Frances Kerry)