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Venezuela lawmaker seeks refuge in Argentine embassy after colleague's arrest

Venezuela lawmaker seeks refuge in Argentine embassy after colleague's arrest
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By Luc Cohen and Cassandra Garrison

CARACAS/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A Venezuelan opposition lawmaker sought refuge at the Argentine embassy in Caracas on Thursday, according to an Argentine foreign ministry source and a Reuters witness, after another top figure in the opposition-controlled legislature was arrested on Wednesday.

Richard Blanco of the Brave Peoples' Alliance party was one of 10 opposition lawmakers stripped of parliamentary immunity by the Supreme Court this week.

The crackdown came after they joined opposition leader Juan Guaido in rallies last month to spur a military uprising against socialist President Nicolas Maduro. 

"He (Blanco) is there as a guest, we can confirm that," said the Argentine official, who asked not to be identified.

Venezuela's information ministry, Argentina's foreign ministry and its embassy in Caracas did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency in January, arguing Maduro's 2018 reelection was illegitimate. About 50 countries, including the United States and much of Latin America, have recognised Guaido as the country's legitimate leader.

Maduro's government has so far avoided arresting Guaido, which would likely provoke a strong backlash. But the recent measures suggest the ruling Socialist Party is seeking to isolate him by pursuing key allies in congress.

TOWED AWAY AND ARRESTED

Edgar Zambrano, the Assembly's vice president, was arrested on Wednesday by intelligence agents who used a tow truck to drag away his vehicle with him inside. Zambrano was among the deputies who had their immunity stripped this week.

Zambrano's arrest drew swift condemnation from opposition leaders and the United States, which argues Maduro is a dictator who has undermined the rule of law.

"We will continue to use the full weight of the U.S. government to hold accountable those who subvert democracy and the Venezuelan Constitutional order, and threaten the safety of the duly-elected National Assembly of Venezuela," a senior Trump administration official said on condition of anonymity on Thursday.     

The decision to strip legislators of their immunity and to arrest Zambrano was condemned as 'unconstitutional' in a statement on Thursday by the Lima Group, a regional bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Canada.

Among other opposition figures, lawmaker Marianella Magallanes, whose immunity was stripped on Tuesday, sought refuge in the Italian embassy. Guaido's chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was arrested in March.

Last week, Leopoldo Lopez - Guaido's political mentor - moved into Spain's diplomatic residence after escaping house arrest to appear alongside Guaido during his call for the military to rise up.     

The United States has slapped sanctions on state oil company PDVSA and several top figures in Maduro's government in a bid to pressure Maduro to step aside so Guaido can take office and call new elections. This week, it removed sanctions on a former Venezuelan general it said broke with Maduro last week.    

Maduro retains control of the military and state functions. He has branded Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup. 

(Additional reporting by Johnny Carvajal in Caracas and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Daniel Flynn and Bernadette Baum)

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