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U.S. restricts travel by Venezuelan officials

Source: Reuters - Wed, 30 Jul 2014 14:59 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds quote from U.S. senator, Venezuela official, context)

By Doina Chiacu and Andrew Cawthorne

WASHINGTON/CARACAS, July 30 (Reuters) - The United States imposed travel restrictions on Wednesday on some Venezuelan government officials it accuses of rights abuses in a crackdown on protests against President Nicolas Maduro this year.

Three months of demonstrations led by hard-line opposition and student leaders earlier this year led to violence that killed 43 people in the South American OPEC member nation's worst unrest for a decade.

Demonstrators said they were protesting economic hardships and dictatorial government, but Maduro, who replaced the late Hugo Chavez last year, called them a cover for a U.S.-backed "coup" attempt against him.

Protesters were subjected to arbitrary detentions, excessive force and judicial intimidation, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement, echoing local opposition and rights' groups accusations against the government.

As a result, Washington decided to deny U.S. entry for "a number of Venezuelan government officials who have been responsible for or complicit in such human rights abuses," she added.

She did not say how many Venezuelan officials were affected.

"While we will not publicly identify these individuals because of visa record confidentiality, our message is clear: those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States," Harf said.

There was no immediate reaction from the Venezuelan government, though Foreign Minister Elias Jaua was due to give a news conference later on Wednesday.

Recent talk in the United States of possible sanctions against Venezuela had, though, brought condemnations of "imperialist" meddling from Maduro and other top officials.

The 51-year-old former bus driver weathered this year's protests intact, even using them to rally factions in the ruling Socialist Party around him. The violence left the opposition deeply split between radicals and moderates.

The fatalities, mainly from gunshots, included both opposition and government supporters.

Local rights activists say hundreds of people were rounded up arbitrarily, with many beaten by security forces.

Eighty-seven people remain in jail over the demonstrations, including radical opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, accused by the government of being the mastermind.

Members of the U.S. Congress, particularly Republicans and Florida lawmakers, had been pushing for the administration to crack down on the Maduro government by freezing the U.S. financial assets of Venezuelans considered rights abusers, as well as travel restrictions.

Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson called the administration's action a good first step. "But if the violence continues, we will need to look at even tougher sanctions," he said.

Tense relations between Caracas and Washington flared this week when the United States accused Venezuela of using economic pressure, including a reported threat to close an oil refinery, to apply pressure on the Netherlands not to extradite an official Washington wants to face drugs charges.

Venezuela denied using undue pressure over former military intelligence head Hugo Carvajal, who was arrested on the Caribbean island of Aruba which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He was held for four days then freed.

"We complained via diplomatic means," powerful Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said. "The state took diplomatic states and Holland took the decision Venezuela acted correctly ... We never moved a boat or a plane." (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and W Simon)

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