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Venezuela's Maduro slams Twitter after accounts blocked

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image © Reuters. Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with supporters in Caracas

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday said Twitter was an "expression of fascism" after accounts linked to his government were suspended, accusing the U.S. company of persecuting his followers.

One of the Twitter accounts suspended belonged to Radio Miraflores, a station set up by Maduro that broadcasts from the presidential palace, including a salsa music program the president hosts.

"Twitter in Venezuela today deactivated thousands of people's accounts," Maduro said at televised rally. "Simply for being 'Chavistas,'" he said, using the term for followers of his predecessor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

Chavez was a pioneer among politicians in the use of Twitter, gathering millions of followers and frequently announcing news on the platform. Even today, Chavez's 4 million followers beat Maduro's 3 million.

Maduro encouraged a pro-government journalist to publish photos of the head of Twitter in Venezuela, to show people "who was responsible for the manipulation." It was not immediately clear if Twitter has employees in Venezuela.

Media contacts listed on Twitter's corporate website did not return email requests for comment. The company does not list Caracas among the cities where it has international offices.

It was not clear why the accounts were suspended, or how many had been affected. Earlier, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said 180 accounts were hit.

Villegas said the last tweet from one of the accounts @miraflores_TV, reported comments by Maduro against U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, made on Thursday.

Twitter's guidelines say accounts can be suspended for abusive behavior, security or spam, among other reasons.

Despite the strong words, Maduro encouraged his supporters to keep using the service as a way of countering online the opposition, which has taken to the streets over the past two months to demand elections, protest restrictions and complain about crippling food and medicine shortages.

"They killed thousands of accounts, if they shut down a thousand, we will open 10,000 or more with the youth," Maduro said. "The battle on social media is very important."

On Saturday, hundreds of opposition activists held prayer services in Caracas and other cities to oppose Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, while the government held rallies in several regions to support the initiative.

The protesters have kept the pressure on the government, with clashes with security forces killing at least 72 people since April.

Maduro threatened opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles on Saturday, saying he would sooner or later "face justice" for deaths in an earlier round of protests.

In April, authorities banned Capriles, who narrowly lost the presidential election in 2013, from holding political office for 15 years, a key factor fuelling the protests.

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