Venezuelans stand under their nation's flag as they protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro at the Angel of Independence Monument in Mexico City, Sunday. Venezuela's opposition has been protesting crime and inflation, and Maduro has called for peace talks to end rioting. / Marco Ugarte AP
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called Sunday for a national peace conference this week to end three weeks of rioting that have claimed at least 11 lives in the South American country.
The conference Wednesday will bring together all sectors of society -- including political opponents, businessmen, unionists, senior citizens and others -- to seek a peaceful conclusion to the violence that has wracked the country, Maduro said during a nationally televised government rally of senior citizens supporting his leadership.
"I say to the opposition that it is the time for us to work on the big issues,'' Maduro said. "It isn't the time for small gestures." The talks will be the first since rioting began on Feb. 2.
Even as he calls for national reconciliation, many protesters have rallied around one of Maduro's fiercest critics, retired army Gen. Angel Vivas. Vivas decried the government from the balcony of his Caracas home, wearing a flak jacket and armed with an assault rifle and handgun during an armed standoff with security forces, the Associated Press reports.
Maduro ordered Vivas' arrest Saturday, accusing the 57-year-old of encouraging students to stretch wire in front of their barricades. Maduro blames that type of trap for the death of a government supporter who drove into one of the barricades on a motorcycle.
"I'm not going to surrender," Vivas yelled to a cheering crowd supporters during his standoff.
Maduro has repeatedly called his opponents fascists and right-wing extremists.
"These far right groups want (to turn) the people against each other,'' said Maduro. He also blamed international news network CNN for flaming divisions.
The country's opposition didn't immediately respond to Maduro's invitation, nor did the president give details about the format of talks. Maduro will address the nation again later in the evening, he said.
Maduro said that government efforts to bring an end to violent protests are working. Violent acts were only reported in six municipalities Saturday night, compared to 18 the night before, he said.
Maduro will meet opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski on Monday as part of a meeting of the country's governors. Capriles, who is the governor of Miranda state, called for Maduro to rein in government-backed paramilitary groups, and said at least 18 students have been tortured by the country's security forces.
Maduro denies the charges. Before the meeting with governors, Maduro will address a rally of motorcyclists who support the government.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly charged that many motorcyclists belong to the paramilitary groups beating up students.
The riots are confronting Maduro with the biggest political challenge to his presidency since he was inaugurated in April 2013 to finish the term of the late Hugo Chavez
Three weeks of steady rioting have dented Maduro's support, which was already buffeted by food shortages, soaring inflationand high crime. Many Venezuelans, including his supporters in the working class, complain about the lack of basic food, hand soap, toilet tissue and other necessities.
Independent polling agency Hinterlaces found that only 42% of Venezuelans believe that Maduro should complete his current term of office, which expires in 2019. The poll, which was cited by Globovision television, said 29% of those surveyed said that he should face a recall vote.
Hinterlaces interviewed 1,300 people during February 8-14. No margin of error was given.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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