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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with government officials at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, August 4, 2018. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

(reuters_tickers)

By Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition on Sunday warned that the government of President Nicolas Maduro may launch a political crackdown after his government accused adversaries of seeking to assassinate him with an explosives-laden drone.

State television on Saturday evening showed the socialist leader appeared startled by what appeared to be an explosion while he was giving a speech in downtown Caracas. Seconds later, the footage panned to hundreds of soldiers chaotically scurrying out of formation.

Opposition critics said the government has in the past used such incidents as a pretext for heavy-handed actions against critics, including jailing some of the country's best-known leaders and barring others from holding office.

"We warn that the government is taking advantage of this incident ... to criminalize those who legitimately and democratically oppose it and deepen the repression and systematic human rights violations," wrote the Broad Front opposition coalition in a statement published on Twitter.

A little-known group called the "National Movement of Soldiers in T-shirts" claimed responsibility for the attack.

Opposition critics often dismiss such incidents as fabrications meant to distract from hyperinflation and Soviet-style product shortages, and say Maduro frequently exaggerates security threats for political gain.

Leopoldo Lopez, formerly mayor of Caracas' district of Chacao, for example, is under house arrest for his role in 2014 street protests that Maduro described as a coup attempt but his adversaries insisted were a form of free expression.

The OPEC nation is struggling under the collapse of a once-prosperous socialist system, with millions now struggling to eat or find medicine - causing a growing exodus of citizens.

Maduro, who blames the country's problems on an "economic war" led by adversaries, during the course of his five-year rule has often announced having foiled military plots against him that he says are backed by Washington.

"They tried to kill me today, and I have no doubt that everything points to the Right, the Venezuelan ultra-Right," Maduro said in a broadcast after the incident, referring to the opposition. "Maximum punishment! And there will be no forgiveness."

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton told Fox News in an interview on Sunday that the United States was not involved in the blast.

Bolivar Avenue of downtown Caracas, where the incident took place, was calm on Sunday morning. Joggers and cyclists were taking up two of the lanes that are traditionally used for weekend recreation. The stage where Maduro spoke had been removed.

(Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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