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Maduro vows to free some jailed activists, raise Venezuela oil output

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Maduro vows to free some jailed activists, raise Venezuela oil output
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By Vivian Sequera and Andreina Aponte

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s newly re-elected President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday pledged to release some jailed opposition activists, boost the OPEC member’s tanking oil production and open dialogue with business leaders.

He gave little in the way of specifics and some of the promises were repetitions of previous vows that have not come to pass.

Maduro won a Sunday election that critics at home and abroad condemned as a farce cementing his autocracy, at a time when the oil-rich nation is suffering from increasingly dire food shortages, health crises, and mass emigration.

Opposition politicians have said it is unlikely that he will make significant changes to the crumbling state-led economic model inherited from his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Presenting his credentials at the pro-government Constituent Assembly on Thursday, Maduro said those opposition activists jailed during massive anti-government protests but who have not committed “serious crimes” should be released.

“I want these people to be freed to give national reconciliation a chance,” Maduro said in a speech, wearing a sash in the yellow, blue and red colours of the Venezuelan flag.

He did not give further details as to which prisoners might be freed. Opposition leaders have generally questioned Maduro’s previous announcements that prisoners would be released, noting some of the country’s best-known political figures – including former mayor Leopoldo Lopez – are still in jail or under house arrest.

Earlier on Thursday, a prominent human rights group, Penal Forum, said 15 senior military officials were jailed around the time of the vote, adding to scores of other arrested in what critics call a purge of the armed forces.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, also promised to increase Venezuela’s oil production, currently at over 30 year lows, by 1 million barrels-per-day this year, but gave no details.

He instructed Major General Manuel Quevedo, the president of state oil company PDVSA, to reach out to OPEC, allies China and Russia, and Arab nations for help if needed.

Maduro said opponents were wrong to blame him for the country’s economic crisis. He dismissed criticism of his re-election as a U.S.-led plan to sabotage him, highlighting recent U.S. sanctions he said would cause “great difficulties.”

Maduro’s opponents say he is a reckless autocrat who has no real plan to revive Venezuela’s shambolic economy, raising the risks of more malnutrition and a full-blown refugee crisis.

“No matter what they try now, this revolutionary boat has already sunk because the people have abandoned them. After so much hunger and misery, only a change of model can free us from this tragedy,” tweeted opposition lawmaker Marialbert Barrios.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Andreina Aponte and Alexandra Ulmer; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Angus Berwick and Rosalba O’Brien)

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