June 19, 2015 / 2:12 AM / 4 years ago

Brazil senators say bus attacked on Venezuela visit to prisoners

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Brazilian senators seeking to visit jailed opposition leaders in Venezuela said their minibus was stoned and blocked, forcing them to return to the airport on Thursday. Brazil’s foreign ministry condemned the incident.

Brazilian Senator Aecio Neves (C) speaks to the media next to Lilian Tintori (R), wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Patricia Ceballos (back L), mayor of San Cristobal and wife of jailed former mayor Daniel Ceballos, and opposition leader Maria Corina Machado (2nd L), at the Simon Bolivar airport in Caracas, June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The group of opposition senators had planned to drive from the coastal airport to the capital Caracas and then on to a military jail where hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has been for more than a year.

“Our bus was under siege; they were beating and trying to break it,” tweeted one of the senators, Ronaldo Caiado.

“I filmed them throwing stones against the bus.”

Another senator, former presidential candidate Aecio Neves, gave a similar description, saying the vehicle came “under siege” from protesters.

“We are here to defend democracy and until now the Venezuelan government has shown little appreciation of it,” Tweeted Neves, who later said the delegation planned to fly home on Thursday evening.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry condemned the incident and said it would go through diplomatic channels to seek an explanation.

There was no comment from Venezuelan officials.

Foreign support for opposition leaders is a sensitive issue for the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who views them as U.S.-backed agitators intent on fomenting a coup against him to end 16 years of socialism in Venezuela.

Lopez, 44, who has been on a partial hunger-strike for 25 days, was accused last year of stirring up violence around anti-government protests that killed more than 40 people, on both sides of the political divide.

Some former Latin American presidents have been blocked from visiting Lopez at the Ramo Verde military jail.

With long delays on routes to Caracas from the airport, opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said the government had deliberately created obstacles including cleaning work in tunnels.

“The Brazilian senators now know what it’s like to live in the dictatorship of today in Venezuela,” she said.

Brazilian senator Aloysio Nunes, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the group had been given two “lousy” justifications for the delays: the transportation of a criminal from Colombia and an accident.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party have faced increasing criticism for maintaining close ties to Maduro.

Brazil’s Senate passed a motion condemning the episode and some members called for punitive measures against Venezuela such as its suspension from regional bloc Mercosur, the tearing up of bilateral trade pacts and the recall of Brazil’s ambassador.

Reporting and writing by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Additional reporting by Brad Haynes in Sao Paulo, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Stephen Eisenhammer in Rio; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Ken Wills

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