Maduro wants South America to meet on Venezuela crisis

President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday called for a meeting of South American leaders on the turmoil in Venezuela after more than a month of anti-government street protests.

Maduro made the request to visiting Suriname President Desi Bouterse, the current head of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), a regional bloc that does not include the United States.

The move came a day after the Venezuelan president broke off relations with Panama after it called for a meeting of the rival Washington-based Organization of American States on the crisis.

Maduro said he wanted the meeting to explain "the attacks, the violence, the small groups that have tried to undermine social life and impose a political situation that our country is overcoming."

In a speech Wednesday, Maduro angrily rejected OAS involvement, saying Venezuela would turn to other regional organizations that do not include the United States.

At Panama's request, the OAS scheduled a close door meeting on Venezuela for later in the day Thursday.

Street protests erupted in Venezuela on February 4 and have continued every day since in the biggest challenge yet to Maduro's nearly year-old government.

At least 18 people had already been killed when Maduro spoke, and shortly afterwards officials said a policeman had died in a street battle.

Public anger over violent crime, shortages and arrests of protesters have fueled the protests.

But Maduro charges they are part of a US-backed plot by "fascists" to destabilize his socialist-inspired government.