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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday that 17 people had been detained for an attack on a rival presidential candidate's campaign, but the leftist leader rejected accusations that pro-government thugs were to blame for the unrest ahead of the May vote.

The security boss of opposition candidate Henri Falcon sustained a "severe" injury to the head during an outing in the rough Caracas neighbourhood of Catia on Monday. Falcon accused government supporters of attacking Teodoro Campos, who is also a lawmaker, with a brass knuckle. After being whisked to hospital, Campos was in stable condition, according to Falcon.

Maduro, whom Falcon has accused of turning to violence to compensate for his deep unpopularity in the midst of a brutal economic crisis, condemned the attack.

"I can say that there are 17 people arrested and that all who dare attack presidential candidate Henri Falcon's campaign verbally or physically will be punished with jail," Maduro said during a speech on state television. He did not provide any details on the arrests.

Maduro rebuffed claims that militant grassroot groups known as "colectivos" were behind the attack.

"If someone says they are 'chavista' or a member of a 'colectivo' and does what that group did yesterday in Catia, in Caracas, then they're not 'chavista.' It could be an infiltrator on the right-wing's payroll," said Maduro, who frequently accuses his opponents of seeking to sabotage his presidency by allegedly hoarding goods, tampering with the electricity generation and fuelling violence.

Critics say Maduro has wrecked the oil-rich nation's economy with inefficient and corrupt state meddling but refuses to take responsibility for Venezuela's meltdown.

Falcon is hoping to beat Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, in a May 20 election that the rest of the opposition is boycotting because it says the electoral process is stacked against it.

Many opposition members distrust Falcon, once a member of the ruling socialists, and say he is a government puppet designed to legitimize an unfair election. Falcon, however, says Maduro's opponents must unite to try to defeat Maduro at the ballot box and bring about peaceful change in Venezuela.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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Reuters