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By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council will turn its attention to the growing crisis in Venezuela for the first time on Wednesday after the United States called for a closed-door briefing on weeks of anti-government unrest.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the South American nation of 30 million, angry about food shortages, a medical crisis and soaring inflation. At least 42 people have died during the unrest.

Protesters are demanding elections, freedom for jailed activists, foreign aid to offset an economic crisis, and autonomy for the opposition-controlled legislature.

A senior U.N. political affairs official is due to brief the 15-member Security Council on the situation.

"In Venezuela, we are on the verge of humanitarian crisis," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement ahead of the meeting.

"For the sake of the Venezuelan people, and the security of the region, we must work together to ensure (President Nicolas) Maduro ends this violence and oppression and restores democracy to the people," she said.

Maduro blames the opposition for the country's crisis and the deaths, which have occurred on all sides. He accuses his opponents of trying to oust him in a coup with the backing of Washington.

British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the Security Council meeting on Wednesday was about "raising awareness."

"We talk a lot about preventing conflicts in general, in theory. Here is a very specific, very concrete issue, which could - if things go wrong - descend into conflict, could descend into a threat to international peace and security," Rycroft told reporters.

"So we need to act in whatever ways we can starting with our discussion today," he said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tom Brown)

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Reuters