Split in Maduro's ranks amid Venezuela turmoil

Venezuelan demonstrators protesting against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, Venezuela, on Feb 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Venezuelan demonstrators protesting against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, Venezuela, on Feb 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

CARACAS (AFP) - A Venezuelan ruling party governor called for the release of all jailed protesters on Monday, Feb 24, 2014, in a rare public split within President Nicolas Maduro's ranks after nearly three weeks of deadly anti-government demonstrations.

Mr Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, the governor of the western state of Tachira where the student-led protests began on Feb 4, also criticised the use of the military in response to the protests, calling it "a grave error" and an "unacceptable excess". The development came as Mr Maduro was preparing to meet with the nation's governors and after his call on Sunday for a national dialogue.

At least 14 people have been killed and 140 others injured in the protests, which have posed the greatest challenge to Mr Maduro's government since he was narrowly elected president last year to succeed the late leftist icon Hugo Chavez.

Forty-five people remain under arrest.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega said 13 people had lost their lives as of Sunday, and on Monday a protester was killed falling from a roof as he tried to take cover from tear gas.

Mr Vielma's criticism carried weight because, besides being a governor, he is a former military officer who took part in an abortive coup led by Mr Chavez in 1992.

"All those who are in jail for political reasons, send them home," Mr Vielma said in a radio interview. "Including Simonovis, including Leopoldo Lopez."

Mr Lopez is a prominent opposition leader who was jailed last week after the protests turned violent.

The charismatic 42-year-old has been charged with instigating violence, property damage and criminal association after the shooting deaths of three people following an opposition protest earlier this month.

Mr Ivan Simonovis is a police official who has been imprisoned for more than seven years accused of taking part in a short-lived 2002 coup against Mr Chavez.

Mr Maduro ordered a battalion of paratroopers last week to San Cristobal, the capital of Tachira, and had said he might suspend constitutional guarantees in the restive state.

Mr Vielma said that would be counterproductive and unnecessary.

"I am against it. It upset me a lot," the governor said. "It was unnecessary for military aircraft to pass over San Cristobal."

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out on Saturday for a massive demonstration called by opposition figure Mr Henrique Capriles, who disputed Maduro's election but has remained in the background of the latest protests.

Mr Capriles, who ran against Maduro and was expected to attend the governors' meeting on Monday, called for it to be broadcast on live television "so that the public can see and hear the truth", he tweeted on Sunday.

Rising public discontent over high crime, soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods has spilled over into violence in nightly clashes between protesters, security forces and swarms of motorcycle riding civilians alleged to be acting on behalf of the government.

Mr Maduro over the weekend called for "a national peace conference" to be held on Wednesday "with all social, political, union and religious groups". The leftist leader also said he would ask the National Assembly to form a Truth Commission to look into the protests, which he claims are an attempt to "justify foreign intervention in Venezuela".

Political analyst John Magdaleno said the proposed talks are an attempt to improve the government's image as it attempts to ride out the protests.

"The government has seen how high the price is, in terms of public opinion at home and abroad, for his security forces' actions," Mr Magdaleno told Agence France-Presse.

"With these crisis talks, he (Maduro) is looking for some kind of appeasement," he said, adding, however, that he was sceptical the talks would succeed - or that street protests could lead to the President's resignation.

Although it is under duress, Mr Maduro's "Chavista" administration can still count on core support among the country's working class.

Mr Maduro insists the protests are part of a coup d'etat plot instigated by Washington and conservative former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

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