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Venezuelan leader challenges Obama to talks

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro urged Barack Obama to "accept the challenge" and hold direct talks, a surprise overture made after days of accusing Washington of plotting his overthrow.

The announcement came after nearly three weeks of often violent anti-government protests in Caracas and other major cities, the biggest test to Maduro since he succeeded leftist icon Hugo Chavez last year.

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry chastised Caracas for its crackdown, but nothing about direct talks.

"I am watching with increasing concern the situation in Venezuela," the top US diplomat said in a statement, pointing to the government's use of force against peaceful protesters, the jailing of protesters and a tightening of media restrictions.

"This is not how democracies behave," he said.

Venezuela's relations with the United States, long strained under Chavez, have worsened under Maduro, who has never spoken directly to his US counterpart.

Maduro, who was narrowly elected last year, said: "I call a dialogue with you, President Obama... between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government."

His government claims that Venezuelan opposition leaders are in Washington's pay.

- Renewed diplomatic ties? -

Maduro, who lashed out at the US president earlier this week, proposed to restore ties to the ambassadorial level and said he had given his foreign minister "special powers" to handle bilateral dialogue.

Caracas and Washington have not exchanged ambassadors since their respective envoys were withdrawn in late 2010. Venezuela has expelled eight US diplomats over the past year, including three this week.

Obama has called on Venezuela's leftist government to address the "legitimate grievances" of its people -- comments that Maduro later dismissed as US meddling in Venezuelan affairs.

In his statement, Kerry urged the government to release jailed members of the opposition and launch a "genuine" dialogue.

"The government's use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence," Kerry said.

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks next to a painting of the late Hugo Chavez, during a news conference at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 21.

(AP)

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