Fears Spread That Venezuela Is Approaching Bloody Face-Off By WILLIAM NEUMAN

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Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.59.04 AMMARCH 11, 2014 

CARACAS, Venezuela — The gunmen descended a street on Monday night toward a park taken over by student demonstrators in the western city of San Cristóbal, the crucible of the protests that have shaken Venezuela. They opened fire, and a 23-year-old student leader, Daniel Tinoco, fell. Hit in the upper body, he died before he got to a hospital, fellow protesters said.

Less than a week earlier, in Caracas, someone opened fire and killed a 25-year-old soldier, Acner López, who was riding on a motorcycle. Residents said he was in a group of soldiers shooting tear gas at demonstrators and apartment buildings. The shot that killed him, investigators believe, came from someone in one of the apartments.

These two deaths, among more than 20 that the government says are linked to over a month of protests, are emblematic of a spiral of violence that people on both sides of this country’s bitter political divide seem increasingly willing to accept.

A few days earlier, in Caracas, near the spot where Mr. López was gunned down, Ana Karina Urquia stood in the entryway of her apartment house, talking about the possibility that one of her neighbors on the block might have fired the fatal shot. Police and National Guard officers and soldiers swarmed the street, some of them eyeing the surrounding buildings nervously.

“This is desperation, collective fatigue on both sides,” Ms. Urquia said of the violence. “I think both sides are looking for it to explode.”

She said she wanted a peaceful solution to the nation’s problems but feared that the country was veering toward more bloodshed. “There will be more deaths,” she said, “but there will be a solution.”

Each side accuses the other of feeding a climate of violence.

While Mr. Maduro has said he wants dialogue, he often speaks with a fiery anger about the protesters in daily television appearances, labeling them fascists and conspirators. His government has begun holding a series of meetings, often televised, that it terms a national peace conference, but most prominent opposition figures have boycotted them, as have student protest leaders.

At the same time, his government has continued to clamp down on the rallies and other protests.

In Caracas on Saturday and on Monday, marches were blocked by hundreds of police officers and soldiers. And in San Cristóbal, where the government held some of its peace conference meetings last week, residents say security forces have continued harsh tactics, entering residential neighborhoods to clear demonstrators’ barricades, arresting protesters and firing tear gas and plastic buckshot.

Many in the opposition believe that the government uses groups of armed civilian supporters to intimidate protesters, and there have been several episodes around the country in which, protesters say, they were fired on by armed men in civilian clothes. In other cases, protesters have been accused of shooting at government supporters.

The mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos, posted a message on his Twitter account on Monday night saying the members of an armed pro-government group were in the area when Mr. Tinoco was killed.

Many details of the nighttime attack remain unclear, but accounts of protesters and residents agreed on several points.

One woman said that she saw about 10 men arrive in a white pickup and dismount, and that they were accompanied by two motorcycles. Others said a group of men on foot had approached the area controlled by the protesters.

Ms. Hernández said the student protesters, who have maintained a camp for weeks in a park on a wide avenue, heard three gunshots and saw the men approaching. They shot back with small bags of explosive powder, sometimes used as fireworks, propelled from hand-held metal tubes that the protesters call mortars.

Ms. Hernández said the men answered with gunfire. She said that one of the protesters had a gun and fired back.

At that point, she said, “a rain of bullets came down; we couldn’t move.”

She said that one of the protesters started to move up the street toward the gunfire when another protester pulled him into the shelter of a building. Mr. Tinoco was just behind them, she said, and was hit. “He is in a better place than us,” she said. “We’re not going to give up the fight.”

In an interview about two weeks before he was killed, Mr. Tinoco, a mechanical engineering student, said that while the students were armed with stones, gasoline bombs, homemade mortars and other crude weapons, the goal was to defend themselves against soldiers or armed government supporters who might try to dislodge them from their protest camp and the barricades they had built to stop traffic.

A burly young man, Mr. Tinoco was in charge of a group of students whose job was to protect the camp.

“We watch for when they come to attack us, and we defend ourselves,” he said. Asked if he was afraid, Mr. Tinoco said that “there is no brave man who is not afraid.”