By Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro announced on Monday a vote for a new popular assembly with capacity to re-write the constitution, but foes said it was an attempt to cling to power amid major protests."I don't want a civil war," Maduro told a May Day rally of supporters in downtown Caracas while elsewhere across the city security forces fired tear gas at youths hurling stones and petrol bombs after opposition marches were blocked. Maduro has triggered an article of the constitution that allows for the reformation of all public powers, as his predecessor Hugo Chavez did in 1999 soon after winning office in the South American OPEC nation."I convoke the original constituent power to achieve the peace needed by the Republic, defeat the fascist coup, and let the sovereign people impose peace, harmony and true national dialogue," Maduro told red-shirted supporters. Opponents feared a vote on whether to create the assembly could give extra weight to pro-government workers' groups and be manipulated in Maduro's favour. They said it was another attempt to sideline the current opposition-led National Assembly and keep the unpopular Maduro in office amid a bruising recession and unrest that has led to 29 deaths in the last month."Faced with the dictator's announcement of the constitutional fraud of the constituent assembly, people should go to the street and disobey such craziness," opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.More than 400 people have been injured and hundreds more arrested since the unrest began in early April.While Maduro alleges a U.S.-backed coup plot, foes say he has wrecked the economy and become a tyrant.
Earlier on Monday National Guard troops shot teargas in a district of west Caracas towards hundreds of opposition protesters standing around waiting to march."For no reason, they are starting to repress us," lawmaker Jose Olivares said via a messaging app, as demonstrators took cover behind trees and walls and opposition lawmakers streamed video of the protest from their phones. Olivares was injured in the head by a gas canister, the opposition said.Elsewhere, the National Guard blocked marchers pouring towards a major highway in front of the Avila mountain on Caracas' northern edge. Opposition supporters cheered as youths ran to the front, carrying makeshift shields made from trash bin lids, wood and even a satellite dish. "NOONE TURN BACK!"
Some, wearing motorbike helmets, swimming goggles or bandanas over their mouths, threw stones and petrol bombs at the security line, with a protester yelling "No one turn back!"Others blocked roads in Caracas' wealthier Chacao area with branches and fences. One woman loaded Molotov cocktails from a beer crate onto a motorbike where two men took them to the front line.Government opponents are demanding general elections, autonomy for the legislature where they have a majority, freedom for more than 100 jailed activists and a humanitarian aid channel from abroad to offset Venezuela's brutal economic crisis. In central Caracas, where the socialists have traditionally held their rallies, government supporters cheered a huge inflatable doll of Chavez and railed against opposition "terrorists."
"The workers are in the street to defend our president against the violent coup-mongers," said Aaron Pulido, 29, a union worker with migration department Saime, in downtown Caracas among a sea of red banners. "They destroyed five Saime offices around Venezuela in the last month ... There's never violence in our marches," he added. The government laid on hundreds of buses for its backers but closed subway stations in the capital and set up roadblocks, impeding opposition mobilization.Some government workers acknowledged they had been coerced into attending Monday's pro-Maduro rally. "We're here because they tell us to. If not, there are problems," a 34 year-old employee with a state aluminium company, just off a bus after an all-night journey from southern Ciudad Bolivar, told a journalist until a supervisor cut off the conversation. Millions of Venezuelans are struggling to eat three square meals a day or afford basic medicines."Who can stand this? So much hunger, misery, crime ... The prices are going up far more than the salary rises," said social security worker Sonia Lopez, 34, at the opposition demonstration in west Caracas, as she waved a Venezuelan flag signed by now jailed opposition politician Antonio Ledezma. (Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer, additonal reporting by Marco Bello, Diego Ore, Andreina Aponte and Carlos Rawlins; Editing by W Simon and Andrew Hay)
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Updated Date: May 02, 2017 06:15 AM