Venezuela frees ex-presidential candidate, five other dissidents

Venezuela frees ex-presidential candidate, five other dissidents

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday released six dissidents, among them former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, opposition leaders said.

"I have been freed, along with other political prisoners," Rosales, 64, wrote on Twitter following his release after more than two months of house arrest.

Opposition groups said that those freed in addition to Rosales were Skarlyn Duarte, Yeimi Varela, Nixon Leal, Angel Contreras and Gerardo Carrero.

They were arrested during 2014 protests calling for the removal of Maduro from power.

Rosales was detained on October 19 after returning to Venezuela following six years of exile.

"We will continue to fight for the liberation of everyone," Rosales wrote on Twitter.

A former lawmaker, mayor of the northwestern city of Maracaibo and two-time governor of the state of Zulia, Rosales challenged then-president Hugo Chavez in elections held in 2006.

Dissident leaders had demanded his release, and freedom for the other opposition leaders, during negotiations with the government to ease Venezuela's long-running political and economic crisis.

Opposition leaders say they will not be satisfied, however, until two key Maduro opponents are set free: Leopoldo Lopez, who has been sentenced to almost 14 years behind bars after being blamed as a chief instigator of the 2014 protests; and Antonio Ledezma, a former Caracas mayor who remains under house arrest.

Lopez, now imprisoned for almost three years, sent an online letter to his followers from his prison cell Saturday, telling them that a "road map" now exists for opponents of the government, and urging them to keep up the fight -- through Venezuela's national assembly.

The legislature, Lopez said, "must make a decision about Nicolas Maduro's political responsibility, and whether he has abandoned his constitutional obligations" to the Venezuelan people, who have faced increasing destitution and struggle under his rule.

Now in its third year of a deep recession, Venezuela is facing severe shortages of food, medicine and basic household goods, and Maduro's popularity has plummeted.

The South American country also has the highest inflation rate in the world, which IMF forecasts say could soon hit 475 percent.

Just a week ago, Venezuela's opposition said it would not resume stalled talks with the government next month over the country's grave crisis because a number of demands had not been met.

The opposition is demanding that talks focus on setting the date for a recall vote against Maduro, and that the government move up the date for presidential elections currently set to take place in two years.