Three Venezuelan air force generals accused of plotting a coup against the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro have been arrested amid a widening crackdown on the opposition.

The unidentified generals were in contact with opposition politicians and "were trying to get the Air Force to rise up against the legitimately elected government," Maduro said on Tuesday, in a meeting of South American foreign ministers.

"This group that was captured has direct links with sectors of the opposition and they were saying that this week was the decisive week," Maduro said.

The disclosure comes after more than six weeks of street protests that have left at least 34 dead.

The generals have been summoned before a court martial, Maduro said, adding that the plot was uncovered because other officers came forward to say they were being recruited.

Anti-government protests

Asked for details about the generals, a senior source told the AFP news agency that the information was "being handled only through Maduro's office".

It is the first time in 15 years of socialist government that generals had been arrested for alleged coup plotting, said military expert Fernando Falcon, a retired lieutenant colonel.

Massive protests in April 2002 resulted in Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, being briefly ousted - before he was restored to power for another decade.

Venezuela's government has been the target of near-daily protests fuelled by public anger over soaring crime, hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods such as toilet paper.

Demonstrators are also angry at Venezuela's close financial and political ties to Cuba, the only Communist one-party state in the Americas.

Maduro had earlier said he fended off a coup bid aided by the United States and other "fascists".

The president, however, still enjoys support among Venezuela's larger, poor population.

Source: AFP