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Venezuela Arrests Major Opposition Figure, Claiming Coup Plot

Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, the wife of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, chants for the release of her husband, as she stands behind two national police officer on guard outside intelligence service police headquarters, in Caracas on Thursday.

Venezuelan security forces arrested one of the country's leading opposition figures on Thursday, accusing him of planning a coup.

President Nicolas Maduro made the announcement in a televised speech to this country. He said that Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma was hiding behind his elected office, but that he was going to be tried by the state for threatening the country's "peace, security and constitution."

In his speech, Maduro also blamed the United States.

"I know the White House has given orders to destroy Venezuela and to remove me from power," Maduro said.

As the Argentinian paper El Clarin sees it, this is an attempt by the government of Venezuela to strengthen its grip on his opposition.

"At 59, Ledezma is one of the veterans of the Venezuelan opposition. He's been a senator and governor and was reelected to serve as mayor of Caracas in 2013," the paper reports.

The arrest comes just days after Ledezma and Leopoldo López, the jailed leader of the opposition, signed an open letter asking for a transitional government.

The AP adds:

"Tensions have been running high in Venezuela this week, with the one-year anniversary of anti-government street protests that rocked the country and resulted in more than 40 deaths. The government arrested several other mayors and former mayors during last year's unrest, including Leopoldo Lopez, who is considered by human rights groups as Latin America's most high-profile political prisoner.

"Ledezma has long opposed the socialist leadership and a hunger strike he staged after federal authorities stripped his office of most duties made him a symbol for what the opposition calls the government's efforts to punish elected officials who do not fall in line."

Photographs posted on Twitter and television images showed protesters gathering outside of the state intelligence headquarters.

Bloomberg spoke to Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based political analyst, who said this feels like Maduro trying to distract voters from the deep economic crisis affecting the country.

Bloomberg adds:

"'This is part of the government's brutal crackdown to neutralize the opposition ahead of elections,' he said.

"A collapse in oil prices has deepened Venezuela's economic crisis, pushing shortages of basic products to a record. The country's economy will contract 7 percent this year, according to UBS AG. Inflation, which reached 69 percent in December, is the fastest in the world."

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