Venezuela opposition calls for nationwide strike against Maduro

Venezuela's opposition has called for a 24-hour strike on Thursday in protest against President Nicolas Maduro's plans for a new constituent assembly

Freddy Guevara, first Vice-President of the National Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties
Freddy Guevara, first Vice-President of the National Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties

Venezuela's opposition called a nationwide strike for Thursday to press President Nicolas Maduro to back off a rewriting of the constitution, ratcheting up tensions after an unofficial vote rejecting Maduro's plan and amid months of deadly protests.

In a statement, leaders said 7.6 million people had taken part in Sunday's opposition-organised referendum on the plans.

Voters rejected Maduro's bid to have a citizens' body called a "Constituent Assembly" elected on July 30 to redraft the constitution.

"We are not going to allow the destruction of Venezuela. The whole country overwhelmingly rejects the Maduro regime," opposition leader Freddy Guevara said, announcing the first 24-hour strike in nearly four months of anti-government demonstrations that have led to some 100 deaths.

Shortly before the opposition press conference, Venezuelan foreign minister Samuel Moncada criticised Sunday's vote.

"It was a grotesque experiment of media manipulation. It has no legal validity," he said.

"No-one knows, or will ever know, how many people have taken part," he added.

The government said the referendum was riddled with fraud and that people were able to vote many times at different polling stations.

On Saturday, President Maduro dismissed the vote as "meaningless".

The opposition - which wants restaurants, shops and transport to come to a standstill on Thursday - said it would also take steps to set up a "national unity" government and name new alternative judges to the pro-Maduro Supreme Court.

Opposition parties control the National Assembly and are calling for fresh elections before Maduro's term expires in early 2019.

"It is time for zero hour," Guevara said. "We call on the whole country this Thursday to join massively and peacefully a national civic strike of 24 hours as a mechanism of pressure and preparation for the definitive escalation which will be next week."

They are also seeking freedom for about 400 jailed activists, independence for the opposition-controlled legislature, and permission for foreign humanitarian aid to Venezuelans suffering shortages and hunger.

Guevara said the opposition would only talk with the government if the constituent plan was withdrawn. The hardball strategy recalls events before a short-lived coup against Maduro's predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez in 2002.

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