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Venezuela foreign minister to meet Ban Ki-moon in Geneva

Anti-government protesters place crucifixes with names of victims of violence as a form of protest at the beach in Puerto La Cruz March 1, 2
Anti-government protesters place crucifixes with names of victims of violence as a form of protest at the beach in Puerto La Cruz March 1, 2

By Daniel Wallis and Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Saturday its foreign minister will meet United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Geneva on Tuesday amid growing international calls for dialogue between political players to ease the OPEC nation's worst unrest in a decade.

At least 17 people have died in violence during a month of opposition protests. President Nicolas Maduro says his foes are trying to trigger a coup, while his opponents accuse troops and pro-government militants of attacking demonstrators.

Appeals for the two camps to sit down for talks have poured in from leaders around the world, including in the United States, and from Pope Francis.

Venezuela's permanent representative to the United Nations, Jorge Valero, said on Saturday that the secretary general asked for a meeting with Foreign Minister Elias Jaua on Tuesday at the sidelines of a gathering of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

"He will have the opportunity to explain the policies for peace and promotion of dialogue that the government is pushing, and to denounce the terrorist plans that have been developing in Venezuela," Valero told Noticias24 Radio in Caracas.

Maduro's socialist administration blames what it calls opposition-led "fascist groups" for unrest the authorities say is aimed at triggering a coup like the one in 2002 that briefly ousted his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation into the recent deaths, and said on Friday that inflammatory rhetoric from both sides was unhelpful and risked escalating a tense situation.

"It is time for all sides to move beyond verbal aggression and towards meaningful dialogue," Pillay said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said he is discussing with Colombia and other nations the possibility of international mediation in Venezuela.

'MADURO'S TOO COMMUNIST'

To try to ease the crisis, Maduro has been holding talks with business and church leaders and some anti-government politicians, though the main opposition figures such as two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have boycotted them.

They say they don't want to provide the government with a "photo op," though the 51-year-old president again offered on Friday to hold discussions with them - in public or private.

Opposition protesters are demanding that Maduro quit over grievances that include high inflation, shocking rate of violent crime, shortage of basic foods in stores, and what they call his heavy-handed repression of political rivals.

About a thousand opposition protesters gathered in the Santa Monica neighborhood of the capital Caracas on Saturday, beeping car and motorcycle horns, and waving placards bearing slogans such as "I'm swapping Carnival 2014 for a free Venezuela!"

"I want democracy," said opposition supporter Nora Duenas, 69, as she stood in the open door of her car while banging together cooking implements above her head.

"I want us to be able to live together in a democratic country where everyone has the freedom to think what they want - but without Maduro, because he's too Communist."

The opposition demonstrators are also demanding the release of protesters detained during this month's unrest.

"Venezuela is united in indignation," hardline opposition leader Maria Corina Machado told Reuters at the rally.

There were conflicting reports on Saturday of between 20 and 41 arrests overnight in the affluent Altamira area in eastern Caracas after security forces fired teargas at hooded, stone-throwing demonstrators trying to block a major highway.

Like almost every evening recently, a violent hardcore sub-set split off from larger, peaceful student-led protests in the area and confronted riot police, blocking their access to the motorway.

Machado said three of those detained overnight were juveniles. There was no immediate confirmation of new arrests by state prosecutors, who say that more than 500 people have been detained in connection with the unrest - the vast majority of them subsequently released, pending trial.

Seven intelligence agents and security officials have also been arrested over the shooting of two people in downtown Caracas after a February 12 rally that sparked the worst trouble.

State media said a female National Guard soldier who was filmed striking a woman protester with her helmet in footage that spread quickly on social media has also been detained.

(editing by Gunna Dickson)

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