Venezuelan leader steps up offensive against opposition

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  • Nicolás Maduro
    Nicolás Maduro
    53rd President of Venezuela
  • Antonio Ledezma
    Venezuelan politician

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro intensified his offensive against his most fervent opponents, sending the capital's mayor to jail as prosecutors planned Friday to charge him with a "violent" anti-government conspiracy.

Almost exactly one year after opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez was arrested as he led a wave of protests against Maduro, intelligence agents burst into Mayor Antonio Ledezma's office late Thursday and hauled him to jail.

A third radical critic of the government, ousted lawmaker Maria Machado, is under investigation over an alleged plan to assassinate Maduro, though she remains free.

The attorney general's office said Ledezma, 59, will be booked for his alleged involvement in a conspiracy "to organize and carry out violent acts against the government."

Maduro, who has accused the opposition of trying to topple him several times since his April 2013 election, said late Thursday that the mayor was detained over a coup plot financed by the United States.

Washington dismissed "baseless and false" claims.

The top US diplomat for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, wrote on Twitter that her government was "deeply concerned by the escalation of intimidation against the opposition by the government of Venezuela."

She called on Venezuela to free opposition leaders "as they have been unjustly imprisoned and to improve respect for human rights."

Chile's socialist adminisration of President Michelle Bachelet voiced concern over the "polarization in Venezuela, which could be a significant obstacle to dialogue between the government and the opposition."

Colombian center-right President Juan Manuel Santos said "the latest events worry us" and that he hoped Ledezma would have "all the guarantees of due process."

The secretary general of the UNASUR South American bloc said the group aims to hold an extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers on the situation in Venezuela.

- Small protests -

Ledezma was first elected in 2009, but many of his powers have been stripped by the central government over the years.

Last week, Ledezma and other opposition figures signed a newspaper advertisement calling for a democratic transition in Venezuela.

Maduro's popularity has plummeted to 20 percent amid a growing shortage of basic goods, massive lines outside supermarkets and soaring inflation of almost 70 percent in the recession-hit country.

"Arresting opposition leaders can momentarily divert attention from the economic problems, but it will only get worse," said Luis Vicente Leon, a leading Venezuelan political analyst.

The secretary general of the MUD opposition coalition, Jesus Torrealba, said Ledezma's arrest amounted to a "coup from the state."

Maduro confirmed the mayor's arrest two days after visiting Cuba's retired leader Fidel Castro, a staunch ally since the days of late president Hugo Chavez.

Ledezma's arrest led to spontaneous, if small, protests, with people banging pots after his arrest Thursday night. On Friday, fewer than 200 people attended a rally called by Machado.

Protests in recent weeks have been much smaller than last year. In late January, the defense minister authorized the use of "deadly force" to keep public order.

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