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House passes bill seeking Venezuela sanctions

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday to impose sanctions on Venezuelans responsible for human rights abuses during anti-government protests, despite Obama administration worries that they could threaten talks seeking to ease the unrest.

The bill would authorize the Obama administration to deny U.S. entry visas to Venezuelans deemed responsible for rights abuses during three months of unrest and freeze their assets.

It passed by voice vote in the House, with backing from both Republicans and Democrats. A similar measure approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet come before the full Senate.

"The United States Congress must stand ready to act on the cause of freedom and democracy around the globe," Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a House speech seeking support for the bill.

Since anti-government demonstrations began in Venezuela in February, at least 42 people have been killed and more than 800 injured. About 3,000 people have also been arrested, with more than 200 still behind bars.

The unrest has been Venezuela's worst in a decade and drawn attention to the OPEC oil producer's deep economic problems, including soaring inflation and scarcities of basic goods.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked successor to the late U.S. antagonist and leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has railed against talk of sanctions from Washington. Venezuelan officials have accused the opposition of plotting to topple Maduro in league with Washington.

A U.S. State Department official said last week the administration did not support sanctions now because they risked torpedoing negotiations between Maduro's government and the opposition to end the crisis.

New York Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks, who opposed the bill, said the United States should not be acting unilaterally, but together with allies in Latin America.

"This bill does not advance U.S. interests. It will not help the people of Venezuela and it sends a message to our regional allies that we do not care about what they think," he said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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