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Venezuelan protest leader taken into custody

CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government arrested the country's most prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, after he addressed a large antigovernment demonstration Tuesday, a move that could potentially inflame the tumultuous political situation.

The arrest came amid the most intense political crisis facing President Nicolas Maduro since he took over in April after the death of his mentor, Hugo Chavez. The socialist country's rising inflation and failing economy have led to greater opposition and demonstrations that have turned violent in recent days.

Speaking to a crowd in Caracas next to a statue of Cuban leader Jose Marti, the U.S.-educated Lopez said that his fight was for the country's youths, its students, "for the repressed, for the imprisoned, for all the Venezuelan people that today are suffering" from shortages of food and basic goods.

Afterward, the 42-year-old former mayor of a Caracas municipality gave himself up to authorities. His Popular Will party says he was expected to appear before a civilian judge today on charges that include homicide and inciting violence during protests last week in which three people were killed as government forces clashed with protesters.

Maduro has described Lopez as a "fascist" in cahoots with the United States.

On Monday, Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from the country, accusing them of conspiring against his government. The State Department called the allegations "baseless and false."

Lopez has emerged as the leading critic of Maduro's government. In a video before Tuesday's march, Lopez said he had "nothing to fear" and offered himself up for arrest.

He cautioned the crowd to remain peaceful after his arrest. "I beg you that when I go and give myself to the authorities, I ask you to be cautious. With no confrontation," he said.

Opposition Venezuelan leader Leopoldo Lopez, center, surrenders Tuesday to the Venezuelan National Guard at Caracas Plaza, in Caracas, Venezuela. Lopez had been on the run since an arrest warrant was issued for  him.

European Pressphoto Agency

Opposition Venezuelan leader Leopoldo Lopez, center, surrenders Tuesday to the Venezuelan National Guard at Caracas Plaza, in Caracas, Venezuela. Lopez had been on the run since an arrest warrant was issued for him.

Venezuelan protest leader taken into custody 02/18/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 12:39am]

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