Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Thursday the fatal shooting of an opposition leader appeared to be a gangland score-settling dismissing claim it was politically motivated ahead of elections. An attacker shot Luis Manuel Diaz dead on Wednesday evening in the central Guarico region at a campaign rally for the December 6 legislative elections, party officials said, ratcheting up fears that violence could erupt in the lead-up to the polls.
The event was also attended by Lilian Tintori, the wife of a jailed opposition leader and a high-profile critic of Maduro. They want to kill me, Tintori told a news conference later. I hold Nicolas Maduro directly responsible.
Polls have indicated Maduro's populist government could lose its majority in the National Assembly in next month's vote, potentially weakening his grip on power. But Maduro has warned that if the opposition wins, his side is politically and militarily prepared to deal with it and would take to the streets.
Diaz was regional coordinator of the Democratic Action party, part of an opposition coalition against Maduro, though Diaz was not running for office.
Observers have warned the elections could spark unrest in the Latin American nation of 30 million people, already wracked by violence and an economic crisis with many families short of basic supplies.
Maduro said authorities were investigating the regrettable killing and the interior ministry has evidence that suggests it was a contract killing to settle a score between rival gangs.
In a speech to supporters, he rejected a claim by the chairman of Democratic Action, Henry Ramos Allup, that the shooter was a member of an armed gang linked to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
Forensic investigations and testimonies from people who were there show that is totally false and is a reckless accusation, he said.
Tintori's husband Leopoldo Lopez is in prison for incitement to violence in 2014 anti-government protests, though a fugitive prosecutor in the case has cast doubt on his conviction. That unrest left 43 people dead, according to the government.
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) condemned Wednesday's killing and rejected all forms of violence that could affect the normal development of the electoral process.
The 12-country regional bloc, which is sending observers to monitor the elections, in a statement called on authorities to carry out a thorough investigation into this reprehensible act.
In the past two weeks, Venezuela's opposition has reported assaults and harassment against its leaders, including former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who said he was attacked by ruling-party supporters.
The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition said: The violent preaching from the highest levels of government is responsible for sowing hatred.
It called on international authorities such as the European Union and the Vatican to urge the Venezuelan government to openly reject violence.
Venezuelans will elect 167 deputies to their single-chamber National Assembly when they vote next month. Opinion polls indicate that the opposition is poised to win control of the body for the first time since Maduro's mentor, late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, came to power in 1999.