By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers pushed on Thursday for sanctions on Venezuelans linked to human rights violations, but Obama administration officials insisted that acting now would harm negotiations between President Nicolas Maduro's government and the opposition following weeks of violent protests.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she shared lawmakers' concerns about human rights violations in Venezuela and a lack of results from the talks.
Hours before the Senate hearing started on Thursday, Venezuelan security forces rounded up about 250 people and dismantled camps set up as part of protests against Maduro that began in February.
"We have got to condemn those arrests in the strongest possible terms. Those were peaceful protests," Jacobson said.
However, she insisted it was too soon, just a month into the talks, to impose targeted sanctions, such as visa restrictions or freezing assets of individuals.
"The process is important because it is the first time they have had such a process," Jacobson said. U.S. officials do not want to be seen as getting involved in Venezuela's internal affairs, which would fuel the government's assertions that the protests are the product of foreign influence.
Her call for patience frustrated members of the committee, including its chairman, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, lead sponsor of a bill calling for targeted sanctions.
"How many more people have to be tortured? How many more have to be arrested? How many more have to be fired upon, before we say, 'Well, guess what, the process is not working?'" he said.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said he thought a strong case had been made to at least consider sanctions. "In our own hemisphere, it seems to me that we should be paying a lot more attention, it seems like we should be considering a lot more actions," he said.
Human Rights Watch issued a report on Monday describing beatings and other violations of protesters' rights by the Maduro government.
Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin suggested Washington should go beyond targeted sanctions on individuals and consider barring imports of Venezuelan oil. The United States is the OPEC nation's top oil export market.
But state department officials said that would only be considered far down the road.
"Energy sanctions are the nuclear option," said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)
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