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FILE PHOTO - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) speaks during a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to present his annual state of the nation at the Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela, January 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins


By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Seven senior Venezuelan officials are likely to face European Union sanctions from next week, including the country's powerful chief justice, diplomats said, as the EU seeks to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to resolve a political crisis.

The travel bans and asset freezes, which EU ambassadors are set to approve on Thursday, will follow U.S. sanctions last year and mark a tougher stance from European capitals that had sought to coax a solution without resorting to punitive measures.

"The (Venezuelan) government has crushed the opposition and is guilty of human rights abuses, so we believe it is time to send a strong message," an EU diplomat involved in discussions said.

Branded a dictatorship by France, the United States and its South American neighbours, Maduro's government stands accused by many governments of dragging Venezuela towards authoritarian rule and ruining an economy that still boasts the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Two EU diplomats said those likely to be targeted with sanctions were senior officials in charge of security forces accused of widespread abuses, particularly during anti-government protests last year.

The list could still change, the diplomats said, but at present those likely to be hit with the travel bans and asset freezes include Antonio Jose Benavides Torres, Chief of the Capital District in Caracas; Interior Minister Nestor Riverol; National Intelligence Director Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez; and Chief Justice Maikel Moreno, who heads the supreme court.

However, unlike the United States and Canada, the EU does not intend to sanction Maduro himself, seeking to instead put pressure on those around him but allow the president the option to travel for any future talks.

If agreed by Brussels ambassadors from the 28 EU nations on Thursday, the sanctions would likely be adopted and imposed some time next week, diplomats said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alastair Macdonald/Mark Heinrich)

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