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Venezuela set for new crisis talks

Members of the National Guard clash with anti-government demonstrators in Caracas on April 12, 2014
Members of the National Guard clash with anti-government demonstrators in Caracas on April 12, 2014

Venezuela's government and opposition will sit down Tuesday for a new round of talks aimed at ending two months of deadly protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation.

Vice President Jorge Arreaza will preside over the meeting with the Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, which agreed to begin the talks last week under the auspices of South American nations and the Vatican.

Anti-government protests have rattled Venezuela since February, leaving at least 41 people dead and more than 600 injured, with opposing sides trading blame for the violence.

The socialist government and the opposition held preparatory talks on April 7, which were followed by an unprecedented televised meeting between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leaders, including the runner-up in last year's elections, Henrique Capriles.

Foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which had pressed both sides to hold talks, attended the six-hour-long public meeting along with a Vatican envoy as "good faith witnesses."

Arreaza gave no details about the format of Tuesday's meeting, or whether it would be public again.

Last week's televised meeting was testy at times, with Maduro rejecting opposition calls for amnesty for those arrested in the protests.

The opposition also called for the disarmament of pro-government civilian groups accused of terrorizing the protesters, but Maduro refused, saying the so-called "colectivos" were merely "social work groups."

Maduro, who succeeded late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez, insists the meetings should not be negotiations. He has called for pacification and economic development programs.

The more radical wing of the opposition, which is seeking Maduro's ouster through the street protests, has refused to join the talks.

They have called for the release of their most prominent leader, Leopoldo Lopez of the Popular Will party, who is in a jail on charges of inciting violence.

The MUD said coalition deputy secretary Ramon Jose Medina would coordinate a dialogue team that includes several opposition lawmakers.

The team will "coordinate meetings, working groups and any other contact" with the government, the coalition said in a statement on Monday.

The protests first erupted on February 4 in the western city of San Cristobal, where students took to the streets to denounce the country's rampant crime after the attempted rape of a young woman.

The movement spread to other cities, including Caracas, with protesters also decrying chronic shortages of basic goods, soaring inflation and the government's crackdown on demonstrations.

The protests do not appear to have posed a threat to Maduro's hold on the government, which has enjoyed wide support among the country's poorer sectors.