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Maduro issues Obama challenge amid mounting protests

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he arrives for a press conference in Caracas on February 21, 2014
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he arrives for a press conference in Caracas on February 21, 2014

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called on Barack Obama to "accept the challenge" and hold direct talks, as the death toll from escalating anti-government protests jumped to eight Friday.

The announcement was particularly surprising because relations with the US, long strained under late president Hugo Chavez, have worsened under Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor's socialist policies and has never spoken to his counterpart in Washington.

Maduro, facing the biggest crisis of his rule since he was narrowly elected last year, said: "I call a dialogue with you, President Obama... between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government."

"Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table," Maduro told foreign reporters, while also striking a more conciliatory tone, saying he was willing to reappoint a Venezuelan ambassador to the United States.

The Venezuelan president, whose government claims opposition leaders are in Washington's pay, accuses the United States of plotting his overthrow.

US agencies "have given the green light for the overthrown of the government that I lead," Maduro said, urging Obama to show that he can "initiate a change in policy, at least in Latin America and the Caribbean."

A protester stands next to a barricade during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas on February 21, 2014
A protester stands next to a barricade during an anti-government demonstration in Caracas on February 21, 2014

Maduro lashed out at the US president earlier this week after Obama called on the leftist administration in Caracas to address the "legitimate grievances" of its people, while Maduro has threatened to block American broadcaster CNN, accusing the network of inciting "civil war."

CNN said that several of its journalists working in Venezuela, on both Spanish-language and English-language programs, had seen their press credentials revoked or refused.

Students and the opposition are spearheading a nationwide protest movement in Venezuela that has left 137 people wounded and seen more than 100 detained since the demonstrations broke out nearly three weeks ago.

The protesters are agitating against a government that has the world's largest proven oil reserves, but which has also overseen deteriorating economic conditions, rampant street crime, corruption and increasingly dire job prospects.

- 'Under fascist siege' -

As well as cracking down on foreign and domestic media, Maduro's government -- which blames right-wing infiltrators for fomenting unrest -- warned it would cut off gasoline supplies to restless areas.

"We will be obliged to suspend the supply of fuel to areas under fascist siege in order to preserve the security of all," Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said on Twitter, in the latest move to squelch more than two weeks of demonstrations that have frequently descended into violence.

People protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on February 21, 2014
People protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on February 21, 2014

Ramirez, who also heads the state oil company, provided no precise details on when or where gasoline supplies could be withheld, but the unrest started in the western state of Tachira in reaction to the attempted rape and robbery of a university student.

There have since been near-daily protests in San Cristobal, the state capital, while four of the eight killed nationwide have been in Caracas, three from gunshot wounds during a huge student and opposition protest on February 12, Attorney General Luisa Ortega said.

In the north-central state of Carabobo, a young beauty queen was shot in the head during opposition protests and a prosecutor died after crashing his car while trying to evade a roadblock set up by protesters.

Investigators were also examining the case of a young man allegedly "raped with a gun" after being arrested in Carabobo's capital, Valencia, one of the epicenters of the unrest.

Among the injured, 100 are civilians and the rest are from the security forces.

- More protests on Saturday -

A poster of Venezuelan late President Hugo Chavez remains near a burning barricade during an anti-government demo, in Caracas on February 21, 2014
A poster of Venezuelan late President Hugo Chavez remains near a burning barricade during an anti-government demo, in Caracas on February 21, 2014

The opposition is planning another major march in the capital on Saturday to demand the disarming of pro-government civilian groups reportedly involved in attacks on demonstrators.

The government has called for a rival rally by "Chavista women" at the same time, raising the specter of more clashes between the two sides.

The United States expressed concern over the jailing of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and insisted that any charges against him be handled in an "impartial and transparent" manner.

The Harvard-educated economist, 42, in custody since his arrest Tuesday, has been charged with instigating violence, property damage and criminal association. He was blamed for the fatal shootings on February 12.

His arrest appeared to be designed to have a "chilling effect" on the Venezuelan opposition, said Roberta Jacobson, assistant US secretary of state for hemispheric affairs.

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