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Venezuela's president announces vote to create popular assembly at May Day rally

Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro announced on Monday a vote for a new popular assembly with capacity to rewrite the constitution, but foes said it was an attempt to cling to power amid major protests.

Proposed assembly would be able to rewrite the constitution

A demonstrator holds a placard that reads 'No More Dictatorship' while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Monday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro announced on Monday a vote for a new popular assembly with the capacity to rewrite 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 gasoline 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.

Only half of the 500-member assembly, or less, would be elected and political parties would not participate, he said.

Opponents feared a vote on whether or not to create the assembly could give extra weight to pro-government workers' groups and be manipulated in Maduro's favour. They said the controversial move 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.

The opposition had been demanding general elections to try to end the socialists' 18-year rule. "The dictator Maduro and his narco-corrupt elite want to kill the constitution," opposition leader Henrique Capriles tweeted, calling for people to resist the proposal.

"They won't be able to."

National Assembly President Julio Borges called on Venezuelans to rebel and not accept Maduro's "coup."

"This is a scam to deceive the Venezuelan people with a mechanism that is nothing more than a coup," Borges told 
reporters, calling for continued street action on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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. 

Tulane University sociologist David Smilde said Maduro's announcement was a "pretty clever" move to dodge conventional elections and it could both appeal to government hardliners and ease international pressure on him. 

"It is sufficiently complex and ambiguous that it might freeze some countries in the international community who think 
this might be a concession to the opposition, or represents an autonomous political process and should be respected," he said. 

"It is a transparent attempt on the part of the government to skirt elections it knows it will lose," he said.

As well as elections, government opponents are demanding 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. 

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