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Venezuela crisis tips into showdown

Members of Venezuela's National Guard chase anti-government activists as protests build ahead of a controversial vote to elect an assembly to rewrite the constitution
Members of Venezuela's National Guard chase anti-government activists as protests build ahead of a controversial vote to elect an assembly to rewrite the constitution Members of Venezuela's National Guard chase anti-government activists as protests build ahead of a controversial vote to elect an assembly to rewrite the constitution AFP
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Caracas (AFP)

Venezuela careened towards a showdown on its streets Friday between anti-government protesters and security forces, raising international alarm at worsening deadly unrest and prompting the United States to order the families of embassy staff out.

The opposition called fresh nationwide demonstrations to defy a new government ban on rallies ahead of a controversial vote Sunday to elect a body to rewrite the constitution.

Four months of protests against unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro have already claimed 112 lives, according to prosecutors -- seven of them during a two-day general strike that ended Thursday.

Tensions have been heightened by a decree from Maduro banning protests and warning that anyone who marches against the "Constituent Assembly" risks up to 10 years in prison.

The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, shot back with a tweet saying "the regime declared we can't demonstrate... We will respond with the TAKING OF VENEZUELA."

It called mass protests for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"The whole country must tell the world this Constituent Assembly has no legitimacy," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said at a press conference.

- Fear of open conflict -

Maduro countered by urging the opposition to "abandon the road to insurrection."

He urged immediate dialogue, but signaled he was not backing down. Any talks, he said, should happen "before the election and installation of the Constituent Assembly."

Fears of open civil conflict have prompted thousands of Venezuelans to join an exodus into neighboring Colombia.

International concern has mounted, with the United States, European Union, United Nations and major Latin American nations urging Maduro to halt his plan.

The United States has imposed sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials to try to force a change, leading to Maduro branding the actions "illegal" and "insolent."

On Thursday, the United States ordered relatives of embassy staff in Caracas to leave the country, and authorized US government employees to leave on a voluntary basis, citing "social unrest, violent crime, and pervasive food and medicine shortages."

Canada warned its nationals against non-essential travel to Venezuela and urged citizens already there to leave.

- Civil disobedience -

Venezuela's opposition, which controls the National Assembly, has urged civil disobedience against what it terms Maduro's dictatorship.

It is pushing on with its own strategy of trying to force Maduro from power through early elections.

Some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose plans for the constituent assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

Skirmishes in the street between supporters of the opposition and the Maduro government have become commonplace.

Volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and homemade bombs arced through the air in the capital during the strike.

Barricades made from debris littered the eastern part of the city, with signs reading "No more dictatorships!"

"Where does Maduro want to take the country? To a social explosion?" asked Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader.

- Shrinking economy -

Maduro accuses Washington of fomenting unrest against him, aided by the opposition. As public support for his goverenment slips away, the former bus driver has relied increasingly on the Venezuelan military to hold onto power.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are suffering under a long-running economic crisis.

The oil export-dependent economy will shrink 12 percent this year, after a contraction of 18 percent last year, the International Monetary Fund said.

Inflation is projected to top 720 percent.

Venezuela's currency reserves have dwindled to under $10 billion as the government keeps up debt repayments at the expense of imports to stave off a devastating default.

The country's isolation increased as more airlines cut service to and from Venezuela.

Avianca, a major Colombian carrier, said Thursday it was ending flights immediately, moving forward a suspension originally announced for mid-August.

US airline Delta is also expected to suspend services from September. The company declined to comment on the move.

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