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Venezuela court issues warrant for opposition figure Lopez as Maduro seeks to show military loyalty

Venezuela court issues warrant for opposition figure Lopez as Maduro seeks to show military loyalty
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez talks to the media at the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins -
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CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS(Reuters)
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By Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's leadership made a show of unity with top military chiefs on Thursday and a court issued an arrest warrant for an opposition figure as the ruling socialists pushed back against U.S.-backed attempts to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Flanked by his defence minister and military operations chief, Maduro said in a televised national address that the armed forces were "united, cohesive and subordinate to their constitutional mandate," after opposition leader Juan Guaido urged the military this week to join him to oust Maduro.

Maduro was also seeking to reject claims by the United States and the opposition that the armed forces high command was prepared to turn against him to end a political crisis fuelled by years of economic chaos.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans heeded a call from Guaido to stage street protests on Wednesday in another bid to force Maduro from power but the president has held on.

Guaido, the head of the opposition-run National Assembly, is recognised as Venezuela's legitimate head of state by the United States, the European Union and others, while Maduro is backed by countries including Russia, China and Cuba.

Maduro's address was a reply in part to comments by U.S. officials who have said Venezuela's military high command was in discussions with the Supreme Court and representatives of Guaido over Maduro's exit.

Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, said Maduro cannot trust his top military leaders.

"Almost everyone was involved with that, and so Maduro has to know that the high command is not truly loyal and they want a change," Abrams told broadcaster VPI on Wednesday.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton on Tuesday said Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, along with the supreme court's chief justice and the commander of the presidential guard, had told the opposition Maduro needed to leave power.

But Padrino stood beside Maduro, who took over from the late President Hugo Chavez in 2013, in Thursday's address.

"Do not come to buy us with a dishonest offer, as if we do not have dignity," Padrino said. "Those who have fallen and sold their souls are no longer soldiers, they cannot be with us."

Military operations chief Remigio Ceballos also appeared in the broadcast.

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Maduro's 2018 re-election was illegitimate. Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking a coup.

LOPEZ ARREST WARRANT

A court on Thursday issued an arrest warrant for opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez given he violated a 2017 court-imposed order to remain under house arrest, according to a statement on the Supreme Court's website.

Lopez left his Caracas home on Tuesday to appear alongside Guaido at a rally against Maduro. Later that day, he moved into the Spanish ambassador's residence in Caracas for refuge.

Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, said the couple's Caracas home had been broken into while they were gone and posted photographs on Twitter of items scattered all over the floor. Omar Mora, a lawyer for their family, told reporters that government officials had illegally entered the home.

"It is a type of intimidation to the family, a reprisal for what has happened in Venezuela in the past few hours," Mora said without naming which government entity had entered the home.

Guaido has suggested a general strike as the next step to pressure Maduro, while U.S. officials have said more sanctions are coming to choke off cash flow to Venezuela's government. The United States has already imposed sanctions on state-run oil company PDVSA, the OPEC nation's economic lifeblood.

Russia said on Thursday it had agreed to continue talks on Venezuela with the United States, while China called for a political settlement via dialogue.

Guaido made a call for an uprising on Tuesday, through a video in which he was surrounded by dozens of soldiers he said had joined his side. Two straight days of massive street demonstrations followed, leaving hundreds injured or arrested, and four dead due to security forces' efforts to quell protests, according to rights groups.

The military is seen as key in Venezuela's standoff.

Representatives of the opposition had approached several key figures in the armed forces in recent months, including a high-ranking army general, according to former general Antonio Rivero and another former senior member of Venezuela's military who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Guaido has promised amnesty for members of the armed forces who join his cause. In a tweet about the death of a protester at the hands of security forces on Wednesday, he said "the murderers will have to take responsibility for their crimes" and that members of the armed forces were "sworn to protect the people, not a usurper who hides while you watch them kill your brothers."

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump's top national security aides met in the White House and discussed a range of possible steps to squeeze Maduro and give eventual economic support to Venezuela if he falls, a senior administration official said.

The talks included sanctions, diplomacy and defence options, the official said, adding that there was "significant progress on defence matters" without providing details or saying whether any decisions had been made.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said U.S. military action in Venezuela is possible, but that diplomatic and economic pressure are the preferred ways to oust Maduro.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas Vivian Sequera and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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