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Venezuela vote triggers deadly violence in the streets
[CARACAS] A controversial vote in Venezuela on Sunday championed by beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro sparked an escalation of deadly violence, with at least nine people reported killed and troops and protesters attacking each other in Caracas and elsewhere.
"This is war!" Caracas resident Conchita Ramirez exclaimed on television as she described troops firing at people and buildings in the capital.
The unrest confirmed fears over the vote for a new "Constituent Assembly" called by Mr Maduro in defiance of months of demonstrations and fierce international criticism.
He is gambling his four-year rule on the 545-member citizens' body that will be empowered to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress and rewrite the nation's constitution.
At least nine people were killed overnight and into Sunday, according to prosecutors, bringing the death toll in four months of violence to some 120 people.
Among those killed was a 39-year-old lawyer in the southeastern town of Ciudad Bolivar who was a candidate to sit on the new assembly. He was shot by assailants in his home late Saturday. Prosecutors said the motive of the slaying was unknown.
Shootings at protests on Sunday killed a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old in the western state of Tachira. A soldier was also shot dead there.
The death toll also included a 30-year-old regional leader of a youth opposition party in the northeast town of Cumana, two male protesters aged 28 and 39 in the western state of Merida, and a 43-year-old man in the western city of Barquisimeto.
A 38-year-old man was killed in Merida on Saturday in another demonstration.
In eastern Caracas on Sunday, four soldiers were wounded when an improvised explosive targeted their motorbike convoy.
In the west of the city, national guard troops used armoured vehicles, rubber bullets and teargas to disperse protesters blocking roads.
Soldiers also violently moved against protesters in the second city of Maracaibo, in the west, and Puerto Ordaz in the east.
The opposition had called for a boycott and mass demonstrations against the election, which it called a bid by Mr Maduro to install a dictatorship with the backing of the military.
MADURO IS 'FIRST VOTER'
Mr Maduro kicked off voting by casting his ballot in a west Caracas polling station.
"I'm the first voter in the country. I ask God for his blessings so the people can freely exercise their democratic right to vote," the president said. He was accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, a candidate for the new assembly.
He got a technological snub when he scanned his ID card at the polling station and the screen spit out the words, "This person does not exist or the ID was cancelled." Turnout will be key to determining the legitimacy of the election.
But that will be difficult to ascertain as most voters will be able to vote twice, because candidates were drawn from social and industry sectors as well as geographically.
Surveys by Datanalisis, a pro-opposition polling firm, show more than 70 per cent of Venezuelans opposed the idea of the new assembly - and 80 per cent reject Mr Maduro's leadership.
Mr Maduro decreed a ban on protests during and after the vote, threatening prison terms of up to 10 years.
But protesters flooded the streets in defiance.
"The people are not going to give up the streets until this awful government goes," protester Carlos Zambrano, 54, told AFP in western Caracas.
Journalists trying to cover the situation in the neighbourhood were set upon by soldiers who ordered them to leave.
Fear of the violence worsening has rippled across the region, and beyond.
The US, the EU and Latin American powers, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have come out against the election, saying it would destroy Venezuelan democracy.
Several foreign airlines, including Air France, Delta, Avianca and Iberia have suspended flights to the country over security concerns.
The US has ordered the families of its diplomats to leave after imposing sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials.
Mr Maduro has described the election as the most important Venezuela has seen.
"I have come to vote to tell the gringos and the opposition that we want peace, not war, and that we support Maduro," said voter Ana Contreras.
The head of Datanalisis, Luis Vicente Leon, said the Constituent Assembly was being formed because the uncharismatic Mr Maduro - whose term is meant to finish in 2019 - "can't win elections."
Colombia, Panama and Peru - refuges for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos at home - have said they will not recognise the results of the election.
The US has suggested further sanctions could follow. The oil industry is worried they could target Venezuela's crude exports, 40 per cent of which are bought by the United States.