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CARACAS, Venezuela — 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.

A spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry said Friday the nation continues to believe dialogue is the best way to resolve the upheaval, while also urging both the government and opposition to act "in line with the law."

Under late President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela began boosting its ties to Russia, purchasing military equipment and negotiating oil sector investments. Maduro has sought to maintain those relations, most recently sending Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez to Moscow in April for an international security conference even as violent confrontations with protesters and outbreaks of looting were continuing to unfold.

Flour is one of the hardest goods to come by in shortage-hit Venezuela. It is rarely available in regular grocery stores. Instead, people find it on the black market or wait in line for hours to buy two packages each at state-run stores.

U.S. lawmakers have expressed concerns about Russia's role in the affairs of its South American neighbor, especially as Venezuela's economic situation continues to deteriorate.

Venezuela's state oil company recently put up a nearly 50 percent stake in Citgo as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan from the Russian company Rosneft — raising worries that a default by Citgo would allow Putin to get a foothold in the American oil industry.