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Maduro issues Obama challenge amid mounting protests

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he arrives for a press conference in Caracas on February 21, 2014Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called on Barack Obama to “accept the challenge” and hold direct talks, as the death toll from escalating anti-government protests jumped to eight Friday. The announcement was particularly surprising because relations with the US, long strained under late president Hugo Chavez, have worsened under Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor’s socialist policies and has never spoken to his counterpart in Washington. Maduro, facing the biggest crisis of his rule since he was narrowly elected last year, said: “I call a dialogue with you, President Obama… between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government.” The Venezuelan president, whose government claims opposition leaders are in Washington’s pay, accuses the United States of plotting his overthrow.