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Venezuelan opposition leader's arrest sought

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Saturday that a police manhunt was underway for Leopoldo Lopez, the hard-line opposition leader behind anti-government demonstrations that ended with three deaths.

The socialist president's announcement came amid dueling pro-government and student-led opposition demonstrations held in different parts of the capital, Caracas.

Lopez "ordered all these violent kids, which he trained, to destroy the prosecutor's office and half of Caracas and then goes into hiding," Maduro told thousands of supporters at a rally to denounce what he called a U.S.-backed, "fascist" plot to oust him from power. "Turn yourself in coward."

U.S. officials have denied plotting to oust Maduro, and on Saturday Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern over the rising tensions and violence surrounding the protests.

"We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez," Kerry said in a statement. "These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully."

Maduro said security forces acting on a Feb. 12 arrest order are now looking for Lopez, who hasn't been seen since a Wednesday night press conference in which he vowed that anti-government street protests would continue.

Venezuela's president didn't mention Lopez by name, referring to him only by a frequently-used disparaging nickname, The Throne, to denote what he considers the Harvard-trained politician's haughty political ambitions.

Still, his comments seemed to confirm a report Thursday by local newspaper El Universal, which published what it said was a leaked copy of an arrest order for Lopez on charges ranging from vandalism of public property to terrorism.

While Cabinet officials and Maduro have blasted Lopez all week as the mastermind of Wednesday's student-led protests that ended in clashes with police and pro-government militias, no official had until now confirmed authorities were looking to arrest him.

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a rally on Bolivar Avenue in downtown Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Feb. 15. The signs read in Spanish "People of peace."

(AP)

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