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Maduro calls for talks to defuse mass protests

CARACAS--Venezuela's president on Sunday called for crisis talks in an attempt to defuse weeks of often deadly anti-government protests that have brought the biggest challenge yet to his regime.

At least 10 people have been killed and scores wounded in daily anti-government demos that began on Feb. 4.

The leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro is still reeling from a massive protest march in Caracas Saturday called for by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Hundreds of thousands met to vent their anger against the government, upset over the soaring crime rate, high inflation, a shortage of food and commodities, and alleged official involvement in thuggish pro-government armed gangs.

At least 25 people were injured in late Saturday clashes with security forces that were some of the most serious to date.

Outside the presidential palace on Sunday, Maduro called for “a national peace conference” to be held Wednesday “with all social, political, union and religious groups.”

Maduro 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,” in an interview on the Telesur TV network.

Pro- and Anti-government Marches

Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, is grappling with his biggest crisis since he was narrowly elected president in April 2013. He became leader of Venezuela's “Bolivarian Revolution” following the death early last year of leftist icon Hugo Chavez.

The “Chavista” administration can still count on core support among the country's working class, and Maduro held counter rallies both Saturday and Sunday in the capital.

On Sunday, groups of elderly people marched to show their support for the socialist regime, in power since 1999.

Pro-government demonstrators dressed in red, waved Venezuelan flags and pro-Maduro banners, and protested what they called “fascist violence” by student opposition.

“That's enough youth violence. This is a country of peace. We want a future of peace,” Cristina Marcos, 60, told reporters during a rally that began in the morning and headed to the Miraflores Palace, where the president spoke.

The daily anti-government protests, which began in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate, have increasingly been accompanied by violence.

In Caracas there have been incidents of men on pick-up trucks, escorted by motorbikes, intimidating protesters.

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A demonstrator wrapped in the Venezuelan national flag remains on a blocked road to protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, Venezuela on Sunday, Feb. 23.

(AFP)

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