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Mother of American held in Venezuela says son not a "terrorist"

By Kevin Gray

MIAMI (Reuters) - The mother of an American man arrested last month in Venezuela is challenging Venezuela's depiction of him as a foreign "mercenary" who incited anti-government protests that have roiled the country this year.

Todd Leininger, 32, has been in jail since his arrest in April for alleged attempted murder and trafficking of arms.

Venezuelan authorities said he was among nearly 60 foreigners rounded up on suspicion of being tied to nationwide protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in February, which have subsided in recent weeks.

Speaking to Reuters by telephone from Bloomington, Indiana, Barbara Leininger said her son had traveled to Venezuela in April with his Venezuelan wife to visit his sister-in-law.

She had spoken with her son once since his arrest, and he had admitted to shooting a man in self-defense during what he described as an "altercation."

"There apparently was some type of party going across the street from where they were staying," she said. "My son went out and asked them to turn the music down. Apparently there was a fight and an argument."

Todd Leininger speaks little Spanish and suffers from Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, she said, adding he took medication and had "some psychological issues."

"I've heard the stories that the government suspects he's a special agent from this country and was there to overthrow the government," she said. "I do know my son is not any kind of terrorist or agent."

A MOTHER'S "NIGHTMARE"

Asked about the case last week, Venezuelan Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez said Leininger was one of 58 foreign "mercenaries" arrested during recent violence and demonstrations that killed at least 42 people in the South American nation.

The detainees, including citizens from Colombia, Spain, the Dominican Republic and some Arab nations, were part of an international conspiracy to topple Maduro, he said.

Leininger was caught with various guns in his possession and some sort of U.S. police or military identity, authorities say.

He was photographed participating in various anti-government street barricades in San Cristobal, a city in the western state of Tachira near Colombia, they say.

"I respect his mother a lot," Rodriguez said when asked about the family's worries.

"Mothers defend their kids, no matter what. If he's sick, the forensic doctors will find out. But every time a foreigner is caught like this, these are the typical defenses."

The U.S. embassy in Caracas says it cannot divulge details of Leininger's case because of privacy rules.

Venezuela's opposition denies accusations of foreign interference, saying the protests were motivated by frustration over economic hardship and state repression.

Barbara Leininger said her son owned a gun but questioned whether other arms allegedly found in the San Cristobal apartment where he was staying belonged to him.

"I can't even fathom that would be possible," she said.

She said she was working with a lawyer in Venezuela to help with her son's case and had been in touch with U.S. authorities.

"It's hard to get a lot of information," she said. "It's been an absolute nightmare."

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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