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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Russia is pledging to send several thousand tons of wheat to Venezuela on a monthly basis, potentially helping alleviate the troubled South American country's food crisis and further tightening relations between the long-time allies.

In a telephone conversation Thursday, President Vladimir Putin told his Venezuelan counterpart that Russia is willing to begin delivering food and strengthen commercial ties, according to Venezuela's Foreign Ministry.

Putin's office confirmed the conversation but did not provide any information about the trade agreement.

The gesture of support for the Maduro administration comes at a key moment. Regional governments have been distancing themselves from the embattled socialist president and calling on him to respect democratic norms as thousands of Venezuelans taking to the streets demanding elections and decrying Maduro.

Opposition members blame Maduro for the country's rising crime, food shortages and triple-digit inflation. At least 46 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes surrounding the protests.

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