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President's opponents rally in tense Venezuela
[CARACAS] Protesters seeking to drive Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro from office launched fresh street rallies on Wednesday, a test of their strength in a tense political crisis.
Hundreds of his opponents gathered near a court in eastern Caracas to protest a recent ruling that cracks down on protests near the offices of the electoral authorities.
They waved a red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag and banners denouncing shortages of food and medicines that citizens are suffering in the economic crisis.
It was a small rally but similar ones were called around the country, a week after protesters braved tear gas in a march against Mr Maduro and the state of emergency he has imposed.
Last week's disturbances raised fears of wider unrest in the South American country, where anti-government rallies in 2014 led to riots that killed 43 people.
The centre-right opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is pushing for a referendum on removing the socialist leader from office, blaming him for the economic crisis.
It accuses electoral authorities of dragging their feet in processing their petition for a referendum.
"We want a solution based on the votes of the people, not an outcome that spills the blood of the people," the MUD's secretary general Jesus Torrealba told AFP at the rally in Caracas.
"Trying to silence protests through court rulings is foolishness." Senior MUD leader Henrique Capriles also called for similar rallies at courts in 20 other towns.
Despite the court's ban, the coalition said on its website that a further protest was planned for Thursday near the headquarters of the National Electoral Board (CNE).
The opposition has handed the CNE the first of two petitions it must file to call a referendum and is waiting for the signatures to be counted.
Time is on Mr Maduro's side because if the process is delayed until next year, under constitutional rules he could hand power to his allies instead of new elections being held.
Mr Capriles has said a referendum "will be possible if citizens keep up the pressure." There is a risk that "along the way there is a social explosion and, as we have repeated, a coup d'etat," he said in a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Mr Maduro still appears to have the support of the armed forces, whose top brass has publicly backed him.
The MUD says he also controls the key organs of state such as the Supreme Court and electoral authorities.
"The only option the opposition now has to press for a referendum is peaceful demonstrations, along with international pressure," said Hector Briceno, a political scientist at Central University in Caracas.
In a gesture of defiance to his opponents and the United States, Mr Maduro flexed his muscles last weekend with a series of military exercises.
"This referendum aims to generate conditions to stir up the streets and justify a coup d'etat or a foreign intervention," Mr Maduro told supporters last week.
He claimed the referendum drive had "very little support." For the first stage of the process to request a referendum, the opposition said it had collected 1.8 million signatures in favor of such a vote.
A survey last month by pollster Venebarometro showed 68 per cent of Venezuelans wanted Mr Maduro's departure and new elections.
Venezuela has the biggest oil reserves in the world but the fall in crude prices has slashed its foreign revenues.
Citizens must queue for hours at shops for rations of basic foods and goods such as flour and toilet paper.
The government is also imposing daily electricity blackouts to save energy.
Looting and lynchings of suspected robbers have been reported over recent weeks.