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Jailed Venezuela protest leader mocks Maduro's talks

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is escorted by supporters before handing himself over in Caracas February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jorg
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is escorted by supporters before handing himself over in Caracas February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jorg

By Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis

CARACAS (Reuters) - Jailed Venezuelan protest leader Leopoldo Lopez scoffed on Friday at President Nicolas Maduro's efforts to open talks with opponents and businessman after a month of demonstrations and violence that have killed at least 17 people.

Maduro, 51, seems to have weathered the worst of an explosion of protests against his socialist government that exposed deep discontent with economic problems and brought the nation's worst unrest in a decade.

Some students are still setting up roadblocks and clashing with police in Caracas and the western state of Tachira. But the number of protesters has dropped, and many Venezuelans have begun heading for the beach to enjoy a long weekend for Carnival celebrations.

To try to ease the crisis further, Maduro has been holding talks with business and church leaders and some anti-government politicians, though the main opposition figures such as two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have boycotted them.

Lopez, a hardline opposition leader who faces charges of fomenting the violence, said Maduro's offer of dialogue was a hypocritical move to try to deflate the protests while failing to address the deep-seated problems behind them.

"'The dialogue' is a tactical retreat as a result of the pressure in the streets. It's not real conviction," Lopez said in a message from Ramo Verde military prison given to his wife, who tweeted it from his account, @leopoldolopez.

"Maduro's dialogue is: 'come to Miraflores (presidential palace) and while I speak to the nation, I pursue, kill and repress in the streets'."

More than 250 people have been hurt in the unrest and another 500 or so arrested, authorities say. Venezuela's state prosecutor says 17 people have died, the latest victim shot while trying to dismantle a barricade in Carabobo state.

'RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY'

Most of the 55 people still behind bars are protesters, but seven intelligence agents and security officials have also been detained over the shooting of two people in downtown Caracas after a February 12 rally that sparked the worst trouble.

On Friday, Maduro again invited opposition leaders to discussions, in public or private. "The country would benefit if we show our faces and talk, with mutual respect," he said.

The president says about 50 people have died in total due to the opposition protests, including indirectly linked cases such as people unable to reach hospitals due to blocked roads.

The worst of the trouble has hit the western state of Tachira, bordering Colombia. Overnight, National Guard troops moved in to clear many of the barricades that had been blocking side streets in the volatile state capital, San Cristobal.

Activity picked up there on Friday, with more businesses open and more traffic on roads that had been deserted for most of the week.

"Each time they take down the barricades we'll put them up again," said Zulay Mendez, 53, a health worker in a downtown plaza where several hundred people met for a citizens' assembly.

"We're sure we're on the right side of history. There's no Carnival celebrations because there is nothing to celebrate."

With the nation essentially on holiday until Thursday, students have called for a major march in Caracas on Sunday.

Maduro brought forward the long weekend for Carnival, then Wednesday will see national commemorations for the anniversary of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez's death.

Ten months after his narrow election win to succeed Chavez, Maduro has consolidated his leadership of the ruling Socialist Party but failed to make much headway on tackling the country's rampant violent crime or nagging economic problems.

BEACH PHOTO BATTLES

Activists on both sides have been trying to score points over Carnival by posting photos on social media of either empty or overflowing Caribbean beaches - with few clues as to when the pictures were taken or, often, where.

Tourism Minister Andres Izarra and other supporters of Maduro packed their Twitter feeds with pictures of vacationers at beaches or beauty spots such as Angel Falls, in an attempt to show the protests have largely fizzled out.

Opposition activists, however, posted photos of deserted-looking beaches to try to show that Venezuelans were not in a holiday mood given recent events.

"Not a soul at this time," said one photo supposedly of the coastline in Anzoategui province.

With local TV barely covering the unrest on the streets, Venezuelans have been increasingly turning to social media for real-time news. Falsified images, some showing police fighting with protesters in countries as far away as Bulgaria or Egypt, have also been doing the rounds.

Annual inflation of more than 56 percent and shortages of basic products from milk and flour to toilet paper and medicines afflict all Venezuelans, whatever their politics.

Analysts say that while this current round of protests may die down, the economy will remain Maduro's biggest headache. Business leaders have been urging him to reform the statist economic model established by Chavez during his 14-year rule.

The United Nations called again for dialogue and an end to the violence on Friday, adding that inflammatory rhetoric from all sides was "utterly unhelpful" as well as dangerous.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was discussing with Colombia and other nations the possibility of international mediation in Venezuela.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Diego Ore in Caracas, Brian Ellsworth in San Cristobal, Lesley Wroughton in Washington, and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis)

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