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Opposition calls on Venezuela to defy emergency decree

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Venezuela's opposition leader urged his country on Tuesday to defy a state of emergency decreed by the government as it grapples with an acute political and economic crisis.

[CARACAS] Venezuela's opposition leader urged his country on Tuesday to defy a state of emergency decreed by the government as it grapples with an acute political and economic crisis.

Henrique Capriles spoke as the opposition-controlled congress prepared to debate the sweeping measures ordered by President Nicolas Maduro.

He said lawmakers will probably reject Mr Maduro's plan, and that if the government insists the decree remain in force, "it is up to us... to ignore this decree."

That stance is likely to pit the congress not only against the presidency, but also the Supreme Court, which has final say over the legality of the measures.

Many of the Supreme Court judges were appointed during the reign of Mr Maduro's late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and are seen as loyal to the government.

The decree establishing the state of emergency came into force for 60 days on Monday, after Mr Maduro announced it last week.

Its first big test will come on Wednesday when opposition-led marches are to take place nationwide demanding electoral officials validate a referendum to oust Mr Maduro.

Similar marches last week were met by riot police and tear gas.

"If Maduro wants to apply this decree he will have to bring out the warplanes and the tanks into the street, because he will have to apply it through force," Mr Capriles told a news conference.

The decree, he said, was a "barbarity - Maduro wants to put himself above the constitution, and he isn't."

Venezuela is facing hyperinflation, food and electricity shortages that are sharpening public anger against the unpopular Mr Maduro.

But the president, who controls the levers of power, has rejected all blame for his country's plight.

Instead he says low global oil prices are undermining the economy, a prolonged drought is the cause of energy rationing, and collusion between the United States and Venezuela's wealthy elite is the root cause of political tensions.

And he has alleged foreign media are misrepresenting him and recent developments in Venezuela.

"We are victims of a media, political and diplomatic attack that is behind the most serious threat our country has faced in the past 10 years," he told invited foreign media in a long improvised speech.

Mr Maduro said his country was the target of "imperial interventionism" similar to a "coup" he alleged happened in Brazil last week, when his counterpart Dilma Rousseff was suspended by senators ahead of an impeachment trial.

He said a US military surveillance plane had illegally entered Venezuelan air space last week.

The president has ordered military exercises for Saturday to show Venezuela's ability to see off foreign "armed intervention." In his decree, Mr Maduro has given security forces, assisted by local civilian groups, broad authorization to counter "destabilizing actions that mean to disrupt life inside the country or its international relations."

The text also authorizes the state to do what is necessary to ensure supply of basic foods and services and to counter the crippling energy shortage that has resulted in electricity rationing.

The latest developments threaten to deepen the crisis in the oil-rich South American country, whose economy is in its third year of recession.

The United States has described reports of Venezuela's spiral downwards as "breathtaking" but has been careful not to make comments seen as meddlesome.

Individuals, companies and non-governmental organizations in Venezuela with links to foreign groups are to be put under scrutiny and risk having their finances frozen, according to the decree.

The decree also opens the way to businesses being expropriated if they are not seen to be doing enough to supply staple foodstuffs.

Company seizures could notably affect the Polar group, Venezuela's biggest food and beverage company, which halted beer production on April 30, saying it had run out of barley.

Polls suggest seven in 10 Venezuelans want a change of government.

The opposition says it has collected 1.8 million signatures to launch a recall referendum against Mr Maduro.

But the vote must be held before Jan 10, 2017 in order to trigger new elections, and the opposition accuses the electoral authorities of stalling.

If held any later, a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to Mr Maduro's hand-picked vice president, Aristobulo Isturiz.

AFP