Protests Continue In Venezuela With Special Election Looming Ahead

Venezuela will vote Sunday to elect a new ruling assembly

Venezuela will vote Sunday to elect a new ruling assembly

The statementexternal link, released Saturday by the Foreign ministry, comes as Venezuelans prepare to vote on a controversial new body which critics say will cement power in the hands of President Nicolás Maduro.

In a Thursday statement, the State Department ordered families of USA diplomats at the embassy in Caracas to leave Venezuela in advance of a national vote that could upend the country's political order and worsen its ongoing meltdown.

More than four months of opposition-led protests against Maduro have left more than 100 people dead, exposing deep rifts in the oil-rich country suffering from food and medicine shortages.

Maduro's decree cracking down on demonstrations warned that those taking part risked up to 10 years in prison.

The killings took place before voting started to elect a new assembly with powers to rewrite the constitution.

In the western Caracas neighbourhoods of El Paraiso and Montalban, residents said soldiers burst into apartment buildings looking for demonstrators.

The military, they said, "is constitutionally called to defend the lives of all citizens, without any distinction of class or political affiliation".

The US, the European Union and Latin American powers - including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico - have come out against the vote, saying it would destroy Venezuelan democracy.

Several foreign airlines have suspended flights to the country, and families of United States diplomats there have been ordered to leave.

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Opposition protesters blocked streets in a last-ditch effort against President Maduro's constituent assembly plans.

State employees, who depend on their free housing and food subsidies, have been bombarded with texts and calls telling them to vote or risk losing their lifelines.

He said the new assembly would begin to govern within a week, with its first task in rewriting the constitution to be "a total transformation" of the office of Venezuela's chief prosecutor, a former government loyalist who has become the highest-ranking official to publicly split from the president.

Opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara vowed that "there will not be calm as long as the people don't have peace".

One activist, a 23-year-old violinist famous for playing at anti-government protests, Wuilly Arteaga, was to face court after being arrested on Thursday, a justice watchdog NGO, Foro Penal, said. Mexico, Colombia and Panama also sanctioned the same individuals.

Air France, US carrier Delta and Colombia's Avianca have also done so. The US has pulled out its people, my boss has disappeared and we don't know when he'll be back.

In Venezuela, opposition leaders refused to put up candidates, arguing the election has been structured to ensure that Maduro's ruling socialist party dominates.

Some in Maduro's administration have broken ranks with him, most prominently his attorney general.

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