UPDATE 1-Former Miss Venezuela shot dead in attempted robbery

Tue Jan 7, 2014 5:42pm EST

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(Adds comments by president and opposition leader)

By Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea

CARACAS Jan 7 (Reuters) - Gunmen shot dead a former Miss Venezuela and her ex-husband in the latest high profile case of violent crime in the South American nation, authorities said on Tuesday.

Monica Spear, 29, a soap opera actress, and Henry Berry, 39, died in an attempted robbery on the highway between Puerto Cabello and Valencia in central Venezuela.

The 2004 Miss Venezuela winner lived in the United States but was vacationing in Venezuela. The pair's 5-year-old daughter survived the attack late on Monday, but with a bullet wound in her leg, the government and local media said.

Responding to a reporter's question about the incident, President Nicolas Maduro said he learned from investigators that the victims' car burst a tire after running over something on the road, apparently placed by robbers to stop traffic.

Maduro said a tow truck arrived to help, but armed robbers also appeared - a common occurrence after dark on roads in one of the world's most violent nations - and chased away the crew.

"They were inside the car and were riddled (with bullets)," the president said on state TV. "I ask those who assassinated this young person: what explanation do you have?"

Venezuela's official homicide rate late year was 39 per 100,000 inhabitants, but local non-government organizations put the figure at nearly twice that for a total of 24,000 deaths.

Show business colleagues of Spear were devastated.

"I'm so sad for my Venezuela. My condolences for Monica Spear's family. Rage and impotence are what I feel right now," Venezuelan salsa singer Oscar D'Leon wrote on Twitter.

Maduro says beating violent crime is his No. 1 priority, and polls consistently show it to be Venezuelans' main concern.

But opponents say the government's anti-crime plans do not tackle root causes, such as impunity for criminals, corrupt courts and complicity by some poorly-paid police.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he and Maduro should leave their political differences to one side.

"We should unite to win the war against violence and insecurity," he said. "We're in an emergency. ... This situation calls for all of us to take a look at ourselves as a country." (Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Stephen Powell and Richard Chang)

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