Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela's Maduro criticised by party loyalist

People attend a march during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, capital of the western border state of Tachira, on 22 February, 2014
Image caption Tachira is one of the states in which the current wave of protests first kicked off

A senior member of Venezuela's governing United Socialist Party (PSUV) has criticised the government's handling of recent opposition protests.

Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora - the governor of western Tachira state, where the current wave of protests began - said the deployment of troops to his region was "unacceptable".

He also called for the release of detained student leaders.

At least 13 people have died in recent protests, officials say.

Opposition activists put the number of dead at 15, two higher than the figure given by attorney general Luisa Ortega on Monday.

'Grave error'

In an interview with a Caracas radio station, Mr Vielma Mora said he opposed "the use of weapons and abusive behaviour at peaceful demonstrations".

Image caption Mr Vielma Mora said he had asked the National Guard to respect demonstrators' right to protest

He also said that after an "excessive use of force" by the National Guard during protests in Tachira on Thursday, he had demanded the replacement of the officer in charge, Gen Noel Bermudez Pirela.

Mr Vielma Mora did not specify which incident he was referring to, but said that a new general had since been put in charge.

The governor also said that it had been a "grave error" by the government to order military planes to fly over the state capital, San Cristobal.

"I'm against that, and it made me angry It was unnecessary to have military planes fly over San Cristobal," he told Radio Circuito Onda.

"Why did they not ask me first? The governor knows what to say and do," Mr Vielma Mora said.

PSUV official and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the party would be contacting Mr Vielma Mora to "discuss his opinions".

Mr Jaua said Mr Vielma Mora was "entitled to express his opinions", but stressed that "we are certain we give the right orders to our security forces, guarding human rights, not responding to provocation, and using the proportionate amount of force to protect the peace and tranquillity of our Venezuelan family".

'Send them home'

The governor also called for the release of protesters and opposition leaders who have been detained in the wave of protests which started earlier this month.

Image caption Mr Vielma Mora urged students to stage peaceful demonstrations and refrain from violence

"All those who are in jail for political reasons, send them home," he said.

"That's where peace starts, brother. We need someone to say, 'let's wipe the slate clean and start afresh'," Mr Vielma Mora said.

He insisted that students had the right to demonstrate peacefully and said they should be applauded for wanting to make their voices heard.

Spreading discontent

The recent unrest started in Tachira and the neighbouring state of Merida, when students took to the streets, angered by Venezuela's high crime rate and economic woes, including record inflation and shortages of basic goods.

Image caption The government has called on its supporters to take to the streets in rival rallies

After the arrest of a number of student leaders, the protests quickly spread to the capital, Caracas and were joined not just by students but also sections of the opposition and other disgruntled citizens.

The arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on charges of inciting violence triggered further demonstrations.

The government has blamed Mr Lopez for the unrest and accused him of trying to topple the government with the help of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

There have also been rival marches by supporters of the government, which have also drawn thousands of people.

President Maduro has called for a "national peace conference" to be held on Wednesday.