Venezuela denies opposition leader Lopez on hunger strike

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's public ombudsman denied Monday that jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was on hunger strike or in solitary confinement, saying he "had lunch with his children" the day before.

Lopez said Saturday he was launching a hunger strike with fellow inmate Daniel Ceballos, a former student leader and ex-mayor, to protest the political situation in the country.

Lopez made the announcement in a clandestine video recorded from his cell and posted to YouTube. His wife, Lilian Tintori, also circulated it on Twitter.

After Tintori said she had not been able to visit him since Friday and that he was being held in isolation as punishment, ombudsman Tarek William Saab held a press conference to deny the claim and insist that Lopez was eating normally.

"His children visited him Sunday and he ate lunch with them. And today his lawyers are visiting him," Saab told a press conference.

He said officials had confiscated a cell phone from Lopez and administered a "punishment," but did not elaborate on what it was.

Venezuela's ombudsman is appointed by a commission in the National Assembly, where President Nicolas Maduro's bloc enjoys an absolute majority.

Lopez, 44, has been held at the Ramo Verde military prison outside Caracas since he was arrested in February 2014 on charges of inciting the violence that killed 43 people and wounded hundreds as Venezuelans took to the streets in mass protests against Maduro's government last year.

Ceballos was in the same prison until Saturday, when he was transferred at dawn to another facility in the central state of Guarico.

In the video, Lopez, a photogenic economist who trained in the United States, stands before the camera in a white T-shirt and calls for the release of all political prisoners, an end to political repression and the scheduling of legislative elections due this year.

He also calls for a "massive, peaceful" protest on May 30.

Venezuela has yet to schedule the legislative polls due this year, which Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela is at risk of losing as the struggling oil giant reels from a collapse in crude prices, soaring inflation, a shortfall of hard currency and chronic shortages of basic goods.