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UN human rights chief calls for investigation into Venezuela protest deaths

The UN human rights chief has called for an independent investigation into deaths related to the unrest in Venezuela. Meanwhile, the opposition has boycotted 'peace meetings' held by President Maduro.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concern on Friday about reports of excessive force by the Venezuelan government against opposition protesters, calling on all sides to renounce violence.

"The inflammatory rhetoric from all sides is utterly unhelpful and risks escalating the tense situation in the country,” Pillay said. “It is time for all sides to move beyond verbal aggression and towards meaningful dialogue. This crisis will only be resolved if the human rights of all Venezuelans are respected."

Hundreds of people took to the streets of the national capital, Caracas, on Friday to condemn alleged human rights abuses by security forces.

According to Venezuela's chief prosecutor, 17 people have died in clashes between opposition protesters and state security forces since mass demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro erupted in February. Chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz said that 261 people had been wounded and 1,044 detained, with 72 people still behind bars.

Meanwhile, protest organizer Alfredo Romero, head of the Venezuelan Penal Forum, said that 33 cases of "cruel and inhumane treatment or torture" have been reported to the public ombudsman. The Venezuelan government said that it is investigating 27 cases of human rights abuses, but did not provide details.

Opposition boycotts 'peace meetings'

President Maduro held a new round of televised peace meetings on Friday, which are supposed to include members of the opposition.

"I believe the country would win if we see each other face to face and talk," Maduro said.

But key opposition members have vowed to boycott the meetings until protesters are released from jail and the government crackdown on demonstrations end. Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, said that Maduro's talks were a red herring.

"'The dialogue' is a tactical retreat, as a result of the pressure in the streets - it's not real conviction," Lopez said in a message given to his wife, who then published it on his Twitter account.

"Maduro's dialogue is: 'come to Miraflores (presidential palace) and while I speak to the nation, I pursue, kill and repress in the streets,'" Lopez said.

Lopez turned himself into authorities after an arrest warrant was issued against him for allegedly fomenting violence. Popular Will's national political coordinator, Carlos Vecchio, is also now wanted by police.

US weighs targeted sanctions

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday said that Venezuela needed dialogue between the opposing sides, "not arrests and violence in the streets."

Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives has condemned the violence against the anti-government protesters as "inexcusable." The Senate has drafted a proposal to revoke visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelans linked to the government crackdown.

Students and opposition activists have staged nationwide protests against Maduro for weeks. They are upset over sky-high inflation, a shortage of basic goods and rampant violence.

The protests have reportedly thinned in recent days as the country celebrates Carnival.

slk/lw (AP, AFP, Reuters)