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Venezuelan protesters rally against President Maduro

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Venezuela to demand a referendum to remove President Maduro. Dozens have been injured in clashes with the police.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched across Venezuela on Wednesday, furious at Socialist President Nicolas Maduro'’s attempts to stay in power. Opposition groups estimated the number of demonstrators at 1.2 million on Wednesday and also announced a 12-hour general strike on Friday all over the country.

More than 120 people were injured and 147 detained, said opposition leader Henrique Capriles. The injuries included three people who were shot in the northwestern city of Maracaibo, a representative of the opposition told journalists. One policeman died after being shot on Wednesday night just southwest of the nation’s capital, Caracas. The police did not link the police officer’s death to the protestors.

Opposition groups organized rallies called for the "Takeover of Venezuela" in the country's major cities, after launching a political trial against Maduro in the National Assembly legislature on Tuesday. They accused the president of turning into a dictator and leaning on compliant judicial and electoral authorities to quash a proposed plebiscite to remove him from power.

"We are going to notify Nicolas Maduro that the Venezuelan people declare he has abandoned his post," Henry Ramos Allup, speaker of the National Assembly - Venezuela's legislating body - said. The opposition would announce its decision in a march on November 3, he added.

"Today we Venezuelans are mobilizing in defense of our constitutional rights and against the coup," leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles said on Twitter.

Opposition supporters filled major thoroughfares and plazas across the capital, Caracas, shutting down key parts of the city. But roadblocks impeded some protesters from entering the capital as underground transport stations were also closed.

In regional capitals local media have reported police using tear gas in clashes against protesters.

"This has gone too far. I do not like confrontation, but we have been too compromising and soft with the government," carpenter Grimaldi Lopez, 50, told Reuters news agency. "The referendum was our constitutional right, and they have denied it. What are they scared of?"

Food shortages

The protests have turned into a key test of strength for Maduro as a political and economic crisis destabilizes the oil-rich nation that has been hit hard by falling oil prices.

Venezuela is engulfed by a recession, with many poor families skipping meals or surviving on starches amid triple-digit inflation and shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.

Maduro called a meeting on Wednesday with his National Defense Council, which includes top officials such as the defense and security ministers.

Defense minister and head of the armed forces Vladimir Padrino had declared "unconditional loyalty" to the president on Tuesday.

Venezuela Rede Nicolas Maduro (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Hernandez)

Maduro said he would stand firm in the face of his political opposition

Accusations of a coup   

Maduro, recently returned from a tour of major oil-producing countries as well as meetings with Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General-designate Antonio Guterres, accused the opposition of pressing for a coup beneath the veneer of peaceful protests.

Some of the current opposition leaders were key players in the 2002 putsch against Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, which briefly toppled him.

"Some want to see Venezuela violent and divided," Maduro told cheering supporters at a rally on Tuesday, where he vowed to stand firm.

"They won't return! The revolution will continue!" he added, pumping his fist.

Maduro slammed the opposition-led legislature after lawmakers voted to stage a "political and criminal trial" against him.

"We will not permit a parliamentary coup of any kind," he said.

Analysts warned of a repeat of violent unrest in the South American nation. In 2014, 43 people died during clashes at anti-government protests.

On Monday, a students' group said 27 people were injured in showdowns with police at a protest in the western city of San Cristobal.

aw/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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