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Venezuela representative storms from regional meeting

By Lesley Wroughton and Carlos Rawlins

WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's representative to the Organization of American States stormed out of a session of the 34-nation bloc on Monday, calling the meeting a "coup d'etat," as regional pressure grew for President Nicolas Maduro to fully restore democratic rule in the country.

The meeting of the OAS Permanent Council was called at the weekend by 20 countries, including the United States, concerned about democratic erosion in Venezuela under Maduro.

In a controversial move last week, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that it was assuming functions of the opposition-led National Assembly. Critics viewed the ruling as a step toward dictatorship by Maduro's Socialist Party, which has ruled for 18 years.

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The head of the OAS, Luis Almagro, has called for Venezuela to be expelled from the group, a move that would further isolate Maduro.

Member countries of the OAS could separately impose sanctions on Venezuela as a form of pressure.

Monday's meeting at first was canceled, but the bloc began a session in the afternoon despite objections from Maduro's leftist ally Bolivia, which took the bloc's presidency.

The meeting proceeded with Honduras as chair.

Samuel Moncada, Venezuela's deputy minister of foreign affairs for North America, rejected a resolution condemning developments in Venezuela as an "act of treason."

"The convening of this meeting is illegal, we reject it and denounce it to the whole world. This is a coup d'etat right here in the OAS," he said.

Referring to the judiciary's takeover last week of the congress' responsibility, which was later rowed back following international outcry, Moncada said: "You're imagining something that no longer exists so that you can promote intervention in Venezuela."

The meeting later adopted a resolution calling on Venezuela to restore the full authority of the National Assembly and to restore democratic order by exercising democracy and the rule of law under the constitution.

KEEPING UP PRESSURE

Venezuela's opposition sought to keep pressure on Maduro's government with scattered protests on Monday.

One group of protesters tried to block a major Caracas highway and another dropped a pile of straw in front of court offices to protest the judiciary's takeover last week of congress' responsibilities.

One opposition lawmaker, Juan Requesens of the Justice First party who is often at the forefront of protests, suffered a gash in the head after being hit by a stone during a fracas outside the public ombudsman's office, witnesses said.

Protesters took live chickens there to symbolize cowardice, but were confronted by government supporters.

Opponents want to bring forward Venezuela's next presidential election, slated for the end of 2018, to try to end Maduro's rule.

Maduro alleges a U.S.-led coup plot against his government.

One opposition party, COPEI, said two of its members were arrested on Sunday and Monday.

Rights groups say that more than 100 political leaders and activists are in jail, mostly on trumped-up charges. Officials say all are imprisoned on legitimate criminal accusations.

Military intelligence agents picked up COPEI's Roberto Enriquez and Eduardo Vetancourt and accused them of "rebellion" and "treason," the party said.

"This is a fresh attack on those who think differently to the government," it said in a statement.

Two military officers have also been detained in recent days, a local rights group says.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta, Deisy Buitrago and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Alexandra Ulmer in Quito, Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta; Editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler)

 
 
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