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Protests in Venezuela heat up as opposition further split over US sanction

A woman argues with Bolivarian National Guardmen after they detained a group of anti-government demonstrators during clashes at a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Members of Venezuela's opposition pulled out of crisis negotiations with the government over what they consider an unjustified crackdown on recent protests.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

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A woman argues with Bolivarian National Guardmen after they detained a group of anti-government demonstrators during clashes at a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Members of Venezuela's opposition pulled out of crisis negotiations with the government over what they consider an unjustified crackdown on recent protests.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan security forces arrested scores of people on Wednesday during a sweep of a busy Caracas avenue as protests against the government heat up amid a widening split within the opposition over whether to back possible U.S. sanctions.

The protest and police response comes as month-old negotiations aimed at easing tensions hang in the balance. The opposition on Tuesday froze talks with President Nicolas Maduro's government, saying the climate for dialogue was impossible after the arrest last week of more than 200 student protesters who had been camping for weeks outside the offices of the United Nations and three plazas in the capital.

Many political observers believe that by halting the talks opposition leaders were caving to pressure from their own radical base, which is fuming over confusing statements by the top U.S. diplomat to Latin America.

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affair, testified last week in the U.S. Senate that some members of Venezuela's opposition are urging the White House to keep on ice a proposal to bans visas and seize the assets of Venezuelan officials who've committed human rights abuses during the past three months of unrest. Legislation to that end last week cleared a House committee with bipartisan support.

In a fiery exchange with Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Jacobson said the restraint is needed so as not to endanger the outcome of the talks and that opposition politicians at the negotiating table had explicitly asked the State Department for more time before imposing any sanctions.

On Wednesday, Jacobson retracted her comment, telling reporters in Washington that she misspoke and that nobody participating in the dialogue had made such a request.

But her comments became a political hot potato for the opposition, with Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the professorial, mild-spoken head of the Democratic Unity alliance, denying any such plea was made. Meanwhile, students and hardliners boycotting the talks seized on Jacobson's comments, and Aveledo's failure to call for sanctions, as proof of betrayal.

Divisions within the opposition had been apparent for some time, with moderates objecting to the timing of street protests in February just two months after the government prevailed in mayoral elections.

Key to the strategy of hard-line groups looking to force Maduro's resignation is rallying international opinion against his government. But in contrast to the U.S., condemnation has been slow to materialize among governments in Latin America.

"There's a clear division in the opposition about whether you play the game of politics or seek international intervention," David Smilde, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, said in an interview from Caracas.

Even some members of the opposition, if not their leaders, acknowledge that sanctions would be counterproductive, possibly setting up the Obama administration to be blamed for Venezuela's economic troubles much like the U.S.'s half-century embargo against Cuba is used to bolster support for that country's communist government.

Even before Tuesday's suspension, the crisis talks had seemed to be faltering. Progress on a range of issues, from loosening the state's grip on the economy to filling of positions on the national electoral council, had been almost non-existent.

Against opposition calls for a non-partisan truth commission to investigate the 41 deaths on both sides, the government recently said it was going ahead with its own probe headed by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally. Another government negotiator on Monday dismissed as a "fantasy" an opposition proposal of an amnesty for jailed activists.

Foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are travelling to Caracas on Thursday in attempt to patch things up and restart the talks.

But meanwhile the crackdown continues. On Wednesday, National Guardsmen fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a protest of a few dozen students. Office workers scrambled for cover and high school students were among those slapped with plastic handcuffs and hauled away. There were no reports of major injuries.

Such aggressive tactics are likely to further enrage Maduro's opponents.

Edgard Gutierrez, a political analyst the Catholic University in Caracas, said that regardless of confusing statements out of Washington, the opposition-government dialogue was doomed to failure given how polarized Venezuela remains.

"But what's paradoxical is that the rift is deeper just as the opposition is confronting a weaker rival."

___

AP writers Luis Alonso Lugo contributed to this report from Washington and Jorge Rueda from Caracas.

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