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Venezuela's Maduro wants talks with Obama

By Karl Penhaul, Esprit Smith and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 0337 GMT (1137 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Nicolas Maduro calls for talks with the United States
  • Venezuela's government says eight people have been killed in the violence
  • The western state of Tachira is a flashpoint of the tension
  • The government is considering sending more troops to Tachira

Caracas, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called Friday on the United States to exchange ambassadors just days after expelling three American diplomats from the country.

The request came during an hours-long news conference aired on state-run TV, where Maduro called on President Barack Obama to begin talks, even as he repeatedly accused the United States of interfering in Venezuelan internal affairs and stoking sometimes violent anti-government protests in recent days.

"I call for a dialogue with you, Obama," Maduro said. "You can designate (U.S. Secretary of State John) Kerry or whoever you want to come to this dialogue and I will send my foreign minister ... for this high-level meeting."

At the same time, Maduro accused Obama of failing to live up to a commitment not to "interfere with Venezuelan affairs."

"What you have said has not been carried out," he said.

The United States and Venezuela have not had resident ambassadors since 2010, although they have maintained diplomatic missions and active embassies.

Maduro's call to exchange ambassadors comes after his government accused American diplomats of using a visa program as cover to meet with with youth organizers at private universities "for training, financing and creating youth organizations through which violence is promoted in Venezuela."

The expulsion, which President Nicolas Maduro first announced Sunday, comes after the State Department expressed concerns about rising tensions in Venezuela.

Maduro's news conference comes amid questions of whether he can hold onto control of the country amid rising demonstrations.

Venezuela's western state of Tachira became a flashpoint Friday between anti-government protesters and security forces.

Protesters blocked off some of the main roads in the capital, San Cristobal, public transportation was paralyzed, and few businesses were open.

Maduro's government has responded strongly to protests in Tachira as he faces the largest demonstrations since coming to power almost a year ago.

The country's interior minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, has announced a new plan to restore order in Tachira, which, he said, may include sending a battalion of paratroopers there.

"This battalion will reinforce the units that find themselves on the major roadways that converge in this city," Rodriguez said Thursday.

The military is necessary because the government believes that people from across the border in Colombia are crossing into Tachira to make trouble, Rodriguez said.

CNN cams taken at gunpoint in Venezuela

Meanwhile, the government on Friday said that eight people have died in the violence related to the protests and clashes.

CNN cams taken at gunpoint in Venezuela

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said another 137 have been injured.

Four people were killed in Caracas, two in Carabobo state, one in Sucre state and one in Lara state, he said.

The government and the opposition blame each other for the deaths.

Maduro singled out one opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, as responsible for calling for the protests.

Lopez turned himself in to authorities this week, and he was charged Thursday with arson and conspiracy. More serious charges of murder and terrorism were dropped.

If convicted, Lopez could face up to 10 years in prison.

The unrest

During the demonstrations, supporters of the country's socialist government and anti-government protesters have flooded social media with reports of violence, making drastically different claims about who's behind it.

Since February 13, more than 2,000 stories from Venezuela have been uploaded to iReport, CNN's user-generated platform. Many of the videos and photos depict violent scenes between demonstrators and government forces.

He also called out called out CNN, Fox and other U.S.-based media, claiming that they are encouraging opposition forces against the government

Alejandro Camacho Beomont told iReport that students Wednesday blocked streets and burned debris in San Cristobal, from where he sent photos -- and he said he didn't blame them.

"Even though I am always looking for peace to make a better place to live, I think people have the right to express themselves in the ways they can, and it is not easy to express yourself in this country now," he said. "I support the protesters. There have been more than 15 years that the majority of the Venezuelan citizens are going through tough times. There are so many problems we have to face every day, and there seems to be not a sincere attitude from the high government officials to rectify (them)."

In a nationally televised broadcast Wednesday night, Maduro described bullet wounds sustained by government forces during protests and showed videos that he said depicted opposition protesters throwing stones and setting buses ablaze.

"You think this is a novel? This is the reality that you with your hatred have created," he said. "If you don't like Venezuela, leave."

Karl Penhaul reported from Caracas, and Esprit Smith and Chelsea J. Carter reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Mariano Castillo, Catherine E. Shoichet, Ed Payne, Elwyn Lopez and Gabriela Matute contributed to this report.

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