By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leaders on Friday demanded the release of a Caracas mayor arrested after what they called false accusations that he was involved in a U.S.-backed coup plot against President Nicolas Maduro.
Intelligence agents took Caracas metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma from his office on Thursday and were holding the veteran politician at their Helicoide headquarters while a judge decides if he will be formally charged, supporters said.
"He's in good spirits and very optimistic of demonstrating that he has no links with any wrongdoing," his lawyer, Omar Estacio, said after a brief visit to Ledezma with his wife Mitzy early on Friday.
Ledezma, 59, is the highest-profile Maduro opponent in custody after fellow opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested a year ago for his role in street protests that brought four months of violence and led to the death of 43 Venezuelans.
Dubbed "The Vampire" by Maduro supporters, the mayor allied himself with opposition radicals last year in supporting the street campaign dubbed the "La Salida" or "The Exit."
Maduro called the 2014 violence a coup attempt against his socialist government, and officials said last week Ledezma was among various politicians supporting a new plot with dissident military officers to topple the president via air strikes.
"Their coup d'etat failed," Maduro said late on Thursday, announcing Ledezma's detention to applause from supporters. "Every fascist gets found out."
The primary evidence presented by the government was a public document signed by Ledezma and two other opposition leaders urging a transition, which officials call a roadmap for a coup but which opponents term a political strategy paper.
U.S. DENIES INVOLVEMENT
Opposition leaders, who planned to gather in a Caracas square on Friday to demand Ledezma's release, called the case a smokescreen to distract Venezuelans from a recession, the highest inflation in the Americas and widespread scarcities.
Maduro, 52, a former union activist, bus driver and long-serving foreign minister, has seen his popularity plummet since he narrowly won election in 2013 to replace Hugo Chavez.
"With this new sweep, the government is radicalizing and polarizing again, and turning the country's attention away from the economy," said Ramon Muchacho, another opposition mayor.
Although opposition leaders lampoon Maduro's coup allegations, there is a history of plotting against Venezuela's socialist government. For example, the United States endorsed a brief-lived coup against Chavez in 2002.
Some radical activists acknowledge the existence of an underground movement bent on toppling Maduro, and recently detained student radical Lorent Saleh surfaced in a government-broadcast video praising Ledezma as "an old fox ... the politician who has most supported the resistance."
However, Ledezma and other prominent opposition repeatedly deny any illegal behavior, urging both Maduro's resignation and a resounding vote against his ruling Socialist Party in upcoming parliamentary elections later this year.
Washington, which recently slapped sanctions on some Venezuela officials, again denied trying to destabilize the South American OPEC nation.
"Deeply concerned by what appears to be escalation of intimidation of opponents by government of Venezuela," Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said via Twitter on Friday.
"The only way to solve problems of Venezuela is through real dialogue among Venezuelans - not attempting to silence critics."
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)