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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (L) greets supporters as he arrives for an event with women, next to his wife Cilia Flores (C), in Caracas, Venezuela January 25, 2018. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS


CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's pro-government Supreme Court late on Thursday excluded the opposition coalition from registering ahead of this year's presidential election, possibly splintering President Nicolas Maduro's foes by pushing political parties to put forward competing candidates.

The court's ruling was just the latest blow to the demoralized opposition, which is seeking to unseat unpopular leftist Maduro in the midst of a brutal economic crisis.

The opposition's most popular leaders, such as Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles, are barred from standing in the election, slated to be held before April 30. Some are in jail, others are in exile or banned from politics.

The coalition had planned to hold primaries to settle on a joint candidate. But Thursday's ruling said the coalition violated the principle of avoiding "double affiliation" in politics and therefore could not be validated.

Critics of Maduro slammed the accusation as baseless and said the decision was another demonstration of an electoral process riddled with wrongdoing.

"The constitutional chamber's decision shows that these are judges rented out for the government's electoral strategy," said Omar Barboza, the new president of the opposition-led congress.

It was not immediately clear what the coalition's next moves would be. Opposition parties will have to decide whether to submit individually to the pre-election validation process, which is scheduled to take place this coming weekend.

Members of Venezuela's government and opposition leaders are due to meet for another round of talks in the Dominican Republic on Jan. 28 and 29, the Dominican government said on Thursday.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Corina Pons; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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