Venezuela opposition denounces arrests of protesters

Venezuela's opposition Saturday accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro of engaging in mass arrests of protesters and harassing government workers suspected of voting against him.

In a contentious start of the new administration, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles dismissed Maduro's call for a dialogue, and said he was preparing for a protracted challenge to the results of April 14 elections.

"I'll always be open to dialogue, but not with a gun to the head or on the basis of blackmail, nor threats and intimidation," he told reporters in his first substantive response to Maduro's inaugural address Friday.

Maduro, who replaced the late Hugo Chavez, said he was ready for dialogue with the opposition but coupled that with warnings he would take a "hard fist" against those promoting a coup d'etat.

The opposition charged that 242 people have been arrested since Monday for banging pots and pans in nightly protests against official election results that gave Maduro a victory by 1.8 per cent over Capriles.

"All these people detained across the length and breadth of the country committed the crime, according to the government, of illicit possession of pots," said Delsa Solorzano, a deputy to the Latin American parliament.

Solorzano said about 100 government workers had complained of harassment in the workplace because of suspicions they had not voted for Maduro.

"The persecution of the public employees... is in keeping with fascist governments," said Capriles, who cited reports the government had begun monitoring cellphone and social network accounts in an bid to identify disloyal workers.

Tensions have soared since Monday when Maduro was proclaimed the winner of the snap elections to replace Chavez, who died March 5 of cancer after 14 years in power.

By the government's count, eight people died in opposition protests that turned violent after the National Election Council announced the results.

State-run television has run extensive coverage of speeches by ruling party officials at funeral services for the victims, blaming the opposition for the deaths.

Moving to defuse the crisis on the eve of Maduro's inauguration, the election council on Thursday announced an expanded audit of ballot boxes, which Capriles accepted.

On Saturday, his campaign announced the formation of a team to witness the audit, which is supposed to last 30 days. Details of the mechanics of the audit are expected on Monday.

Capriles indicated that his campaign was preparing for a long fight, saying it would not be resolved "from one day to the other" but that he expected "the truth to impose itself."

Despite the deepening divisions within the country, Maduro has vowed to continue and build on Chavez's self-styled "socialist revolution" and accused the opposition at every opportunity of seeking a coup d'etat.

On Saturday, the new president visited Chavez's tomb, joining Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner as she who paid her respects to the late leader, who died of cancer March 5 after 14 years in power.

In a tweet Friday, Capriles demanded that Kirchner repay Argentina's debt with Venezuela.

Although the official returns show Maduro won the elections, they also showed that hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters defected to vote for the opposition, a significant slippage for a leftist movement that under Chavez had become accustomed to easy election wins.

The loss of support confronts Maduro with a dilemma over how to shore up his base while dealing with an emboldened opposition and a debt-burdened economy in decline despite Venezuela's oil riches.

Soaring inflation, a weak currency, shortages of basic necessities, and fiscal constraints are a growing challenge to the costly social programs that were among Chavez's signature achievements.

Ensuring the loyalty of the military also could be tricky for Maduro, who has never served in uniform and must contend with an officer corps that has played key political roles under Chavez, a former coup leader who was himself briefly ousted from power.