Pope calls for calm and dialogue amid Venezuela unrest

CARACAS (REUTERS) - Pope Francis called on Wednesday for an end to violence in Venezuela that has killed at least 13 people and urged politicians to take the lead in calming the nation's worst unrest in a decade.

Both political camps were demonstrating in cities around the country. In the capital Caracas, female opposition supporters rallied, while agricultural workers marched to the presidential palace in support of the Socialist government.

Students and other opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are demanding that he quit over grievances including high inflation, shocking levels of violent crime, shortages of basic food, and what they say is his repression of political rivals.

The protests are the biggest challenge to Mr Maduro's 10-month-old administration, although there is no sign they could topple him or affect the OPEC nation's oil shipments.

Pope Francis told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square he was "particularly concerned" by recent events. "I sincerely hope the violence and hostility ends as soon as possible, and that the Venezuelan people, beginning with the responsible politicians and institutions, act to foster national reconciliation through mutual forgiveness and sincere dialogue."

Discussions must be based on "truth and justice," he added, and able to tackle "concrete issues for the common good."

Mr Maduro, a 51-year-old former bus driver and union boss, has invited church, business and opposition leaders to a "national peace conference" at the presidential palace on Wednesday.

However, key opposition figures are not expected to attend.

"This cannot just be a photo op," two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles told Reuters, saying Mr Maduro was not ready to discuss Venezuela's real problems.

"Who does dialogue suit more? Nicolas, I think ... This is a government that is becoming extinct, eating itself up."

Female opposition supporters donned white clothes to march in silence from a western Caracas neighborhood to a nearby National Guard military base, carrying photographs of victims of alleged brutality by the security forces.

"You can disobey illegal orders," they said in an open letter to the troops. "You can refuse a superior if they force you to commit a crime ... don't stain your family's honor." Meanwhile, pro-Maduro farm workers clad mostly in the bright red of the ruling Socialist Party marched in the center of the capital under the slogan, "Sowing peace and harvesting life!" "Here are the farmers who are defending the revolution en masse!" said Agricultural Minister Yvan Gil, referring to Maduro's late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Opposition demonstrations began at the start of the month, but mushroomed when three people were shot dead after a Feb. 12 opposition march in downtown Caracas.

Video and photographs taken on the day showed men widely believed to be state security agents apparently firing pistols at stone-throwing student protesters clashing with police.

On Wednesday, Venezuela's state prosecutor said five members of the national intelligence agency Sebin had been detained over two of the deaths, suspected of crimes including homicide.

Mr Maduro, who narrowly won a presidential vote last April to replace his mentor Chavez, accuses foreign media of working with"imperialists" abroad to project an image of chaos.

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