Venezuela cries coup plot, US House approves sanctions

The mayor of the Libertador municipality Jorge Rodriguez (C) shows documents next to the President of National Assembly Diosdado Cabello (R) and first lady Cilia Flores during a press conference in Caracas on May 28, 2014.

Venezuelan officials accused hardline opposition leader Maria Corina Machado this week of leading plots to topple President Nicolas Maduro in league with US officials.

The allegations are the latest in a torrent from the government, which says three months of protests this year were a veneer for a US-backed conspiracy to unseat the successor to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

Opposition leaders deny and deride those accusations as a smokescreen for a struggling government, saying the demonstrations, in which 42 people died, were a spontaneous response to economic hardship, insecurity and state repression.

Maduro's top officials lined up for a much-touted news conference, which all local broadcasters were required to carry live, to denounce Machado and other opposition figures for "assassination" and "coup" plots against the president.

They also accused US envoy to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, of being involved and in touch with Machado. A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Colombia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"What we are presenting is part of a criminal investigation," ruling Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez said, showing emails he said were proof of the plans.

Machado, 46, who was instrumental in calling Venezuelans onto the streets for three months of demonstrations against Maduro this year, scoffed at the accusations as "infamy" via Twitter.

Rodriguez, a psychiatrist as well as a politician, showed iPad screenshots of various emails he said were from Machado, showing language typical of "serial killers."

"We need to clean up this rubbish, starting at the top, taking advantage of the global climate with Ukraine and now Thailand, as soon as possible," read one.

"The time has come to join forces, make the necessary calls and obtain the funds to annihilate Maduro."

Machado and another hardline opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, were the main proponents of the protests.

'Coup' plot

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday to impose sanctions on Venezuelans responsible for human rights abuses during anti-government protests, despite Obama administration worries that they could threaten talks seeking to ease the unrest.

The bill would authorize the Obama administration to deny US entry visas to Venezuelans deemed responsible for rights abuses during three months of unrest and freeze their assets.

It passed by voice vote in the House, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats. A similar measure approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet come before the full Senate.

"The United States Congress must stand ready to act on the cause of freedom and democracy around the globe," Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a House speech seeking support for the bill.

Since anti-government demonstrations began in Venezuela in February, at least 42 people have been killed and more than 800 injured. About 3,000 people have also been arrested, with more than 200 still behind bars.