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Venezuela in new crisis talks

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's government and opposition sat down Tuesday, April 15, for a new round of talks aimed at ending two months of deadly protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation.

Vice President Jorge Arreaza was leading the meeting with the Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, which agreed to begin the talks last week under the auspices of South American nations and the Vatican.

"Here with the (UNASUR) foreign ministers, and the nuncio, we are starting the first session of preparatory work. We will comment on the way out," tweeted Ramon Aveledo, a top MUD representative.

Anti-government protests have rattled Venezuela since February, leaving at least 41 people dead and more than 600 injured, with opposing sides trading blame for the violence.

The elected socialist government and the opposition held preparatory talks on April 7, which were followed by an unprecedented televised meeting between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leaders, including the runner-up in last year's presidential election, Henrique Capriles.

Foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which had pressed both sides to hold talks, attended the 6-hour-long public meeting along with a Vatican envoy as "good faith witnesses."

Last week's televised meeting was testy at times, with Maduro rejecting opposition calls for amnesty for those arrested in the protests.

The opposition also called for the disarmament of pro-government civilian groups accused of terrorizing the protesters, but Maduro refused, saying the so-called "colectivos" were merely "social work groups."

Maduro, who succeeded late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez, insists the meetings should not be negotiations. He has called for pacification and economic development programs.

The more radical wing of the opposition, which is seeking Maduro's ouster through the street protests, has refused to join the talks.

They have called for the release of their most prominent leader, Leopoldo Lopez of the Popular Will party, who is in a jail on charges of inciting violence.

The protests first erupted on February 4 in the western city of San Cristobal, where students took to the streets to denounce the country's rampant crime after the attempted rape of a young woman.

The movement spread to other cities, including Caracas, with protesters also decrying chronic shortages of basic goods, soaring inflation and the government's crackdown on demonstrations.

Protesters are angered by Venezuela's soaring crime, high inflation and a shortage of basic goods.

Maduro, has lashed out at the demonstrations, branding them a "fascist" US-backed plot to overthrow his government.

Yet the protests do not appear to have posed a threat to Maduro's hold on the government, which has enjoyed wide support among the country's poorer sectors.

OPEC member Venezuela sits atop the world's largest proven crude oil reserves. – Rappler.com