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Venezuelan opposition holds rallies for imprisoned leaders

Thousands of Venezuelan opposition sympathizers rallied on Saturday in support of leaders jailed last year in connection with months of violent protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, arrested for leading the protests, called for the rally in a prison-filmed video in which he also announced a hunger stike and issued a set of demands including the release of other anti-government activists.

“The regime wants to divide us, I vow unity,” said Lilian Tintori, Lopez’s wife told the crowd of demonstrators, many of whom were clad in white to symbolize non-violent protest.

“We will remain together, but in peace,” Tintori added, speaking from a stage mounted in an upscale neighborhood in eastern Caracas.

A similar rally was held in the central city of San Juan de Los Morros, where former mayor Daniel Ceballos is being held on charges he helped demonstrators mount blockades in the convulsed border city of San Cristobal.

The opposition’s Democratic Unity coalition had given a lukewarm response to Lopez’s call, highlighting the historic divisions among the adversaries of the country’s socialist rule that began with late President Hugo Chavez in 1999.

President Nicolas Maduro, elected in 2013 to replace Chavez after his death of cancer, has described the two as criminals and says they are responsible for more than 40 deaths that occurred during the 2014 protests.

Authorities on Friday blocked two former Latin American presidents, both political conservatives, from visiting Lopez and Ceballos. The government dismissed the visit as part of a campaign against Venezuela.

Maduro’s adversaries hope to capitalize on discontent with chronic product shortages, soaring consumer prices and violent crime to win a majority of votes in the elections for national assembly that are expected for later this year.

In his video filmed in jail, Lopez said his hunger strike was also meant to press electoral authorities to formally set a date for those elections.

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