Venezuela arrests anti-Maduro politicians in sweep

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela rounded up a dissident former general and two other regional politicians on Thursday in what the opposition called a wave of repression by socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

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With its popularity falling during a brutal economic crisis, Maduro’s government cast the arrests as part of a crackdown against “terrorists” and coup plotters.

Authorities put ex-general Raul Baduel, who was first jailed in 2009 for six years, back behind bars on accusations of breaking parole conditions by conspiring against the government.

Two city councilmen, from Venezuela’s second city Maracaibo and Bolivar state, were also arrested on Thursday, the government and opposition party Popular Will said.

Another Maracaibo councilman was detained on Wednesday

In addition, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles warned that authorities are about to ban him from holding political office due to alleged irregularities in the Miranda state he governs. Capriles says the charges are trumped up.

“This is a raid against those of us who will not sell our principles,” Capriles said on Thursday, adding he had been fined for the alleged irregularities. “They’re paving the way to later declare us... barred from office.”

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, who is part of a new “anti-coup” unit set up by Maduro, said authorities were dismantling a new “terrorist” plot by right-wing politicians.

“We wish to announce the detention of General Raul Isaias Baduel,” he said in a speech on state TV. “Important criminal evidence was uncovered in a search of his home.”

Baduel played a key role in the rescue of Maduro predecessor Hugo Chavez from a coup in 2002, but later broke ranks with him and was arrested on charges of illicit enrichment when defense minister.

Baduel has always called the accusations politically motivated.

While Maduro accuses opponents of seeking to oust him with the connivance of Washington, critics say he has taken Venezuela down an increasingly dictatorial path.

More than 100 political prisoners are being held in Venezuela, according to the opposition and rights groups.

Vatican-backed mediation talks intended to free prisoners and ease the bitter political standoff stalled in December.

On Wednesday, Maduro said the opposition-held National Assembly had effectively “self-dissolved” by defying Supreme Court rulings against it.

“The regime accelerates its anti-democratic strategy of continued coup d’etat against democracy, the constitution and the people, ignoring parliament, jailing lawmakers and harassing governors,” the opposition Democratic Unity coalition said.

Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Leslie Adler and Alistair Bell