Venezuela's Maduro retains key Chavez ministers

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro confirmed key cabinet ministers first appointed under the late Hugo Chavez in office late Sunday, in a sign there would be little change from the former leader's policies.

Two days after his controversial inauguration, Maduro announced that 15 of 32 cabinet ministers -- including those in the key posts of foreign affairs, petroleum, defense and information -- would stay in office.

He also ratified Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza as vice president.

He nevertheless appointed a new finance minister, Nelson Merentes, previously head of the country's central bank.

Jorge Giordani, architect of Venezuela's strict currency exchange controls aimed at halting capital flight, was appointed the new planning minister.

The new cabinet will "speed off this Monday April 22, with a lead foot on the gas pedal" to travel the country to govern close to the Venezuelan people, Maduro announced just before midnight Sunday.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who disputes Maduro's April 14 razor-thin presidential election victory, dismissed the cabinet as "more of the same" in a Twitter message.

Government and opposition remain locked in a tense confrontation over the outcome of the snap election to replace Chavez, who died March 5 after 14 years in power.

On Sunday the Roman Catholic Church weighed in on the political crisis, with Pope Francis calling for dialogue.

Maduro and Capriles both welcomed the pope's statement on their Twitter accounts, but sidestepped the call for talks.

The Argentine-born pope said in a statement from the Vatican Sunday that he was following events in Venezuela "with great concern."

"I invite the dear Venezuelan people, and in particular its institutional and political leaders, to establish a dialogue based on the truth, mutual recognition in the search for the common good and out of love for the nation," he said.

Maduro responded: "I agree, Pope Francis. I'm concerned about the intolerance, the hate and the violence that generated deaths and injured."

Capriles tweeted: "A million thanks to Pope Francis for his mention of our Venezuela and the search for solutions founded on the truth."

In an interview with the Ultimas Noticias daily, Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the head of the Venezuelan church, offered to help arrange a dialogue.

The Catholic Church has often mediated in political conflicts in Latin America but was largely sidelined in Venezuela under Chavez, a leftwing populist who claimed to be a devout Catholic but often clashed with the bishops.

Urosa acknowledged the church's appeals have often gone unheeded.

"It's regrettable. They pay no attention! And when I've talked about poor public safety conditions and violence, they've told me I'm getting involved in politics."

An expanded audit of the presidential vote, demanded by the opposition, is set to begin this week, even though the vice president of Venezuela's National Electoral Council said Saturday it could not overturn Maduro's victory.