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Venezuela Crisis Enters Pivotal Week, Maduro Foes Protest

CARACAS-- Venezuela's opposition planned to plaster election centers with banners and rally in honor of dead protesters on Monday in a final week-long push to force President Nicolas Maduro into aborting a controversial congress.

The unpopular leftist leader is pressing ahead with the planned vote for a Constitutional Assembly next Sunday despite the opposition of most Venezuelans, a crescendo of international criticism, and some dissent within his ruling Socialist Party.

Critics say the assembly, whose election rules appear designed to ensure a majority for Maduro, is intended to institutionalize dictatorship in the South American OPEC nation.

But Maduro, 54, whose term runs until early 2019, insists it is the only way to empower the people and bring peace after four months of anti-government unrest that has killed more than 100 people and further pummeled an imploding economy.

"This is a crucial week for the future of our country. Democracy, liberty and peace depend on us," said lawmaker and protest leader Juan Andres Mejia, urging people onto the streets.

The opposition, which has now won majority backing after years in the doldrums during the rule of Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez, has asked supporters to demonstrate their rejection of the new congress by gathering on Monday morning at sites that will be used to conduct Sunday's vote.

That is to be followed by a rally in the afternoon on a Caracas street where a young protester died.

48-HOUR NATIONAL SHUTDOWN

The Democratic Unity coalition has raised the stakes by calling a two-day national strike for Wednesday and Thursday, after millions participated in a 24-hour shutdown last week. It says it will step up its tactics if Maduro does not concede.

Young members of a self-styled "Resistance" movement said the moves outlined by the formal opposition were not tough enough, and have announced their own plan to blockade streets beginning on Monday.

RELATED: Senior Venezuela Diplomat at U.N. Breaks with Maduro

In various speeches on state TV over the weekend, Maduro said his government was "ready for any scenario" and blasted his foes as "terrorists" servile to Washington.

"We're not surrendering to anyone," he said.

The government says more than 230,000 soldiers will keep the peace next Sunday. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said election centers had been declared "zones of special protection" given "provocations" issued by some political parties.

With U.S. President Donald Trump threatening economic sanctions on Venezuela, potentially aimed at the oil sector accounting for 95 percent of its export revenues, Maduro said he could count on "great friends" like China and India if needs be.

Venezuela was rife with rumors of more arrests of opposition leaders, splits within government, and a possible role for the influential military in any denouement to the crisis.

Many families have been stocking up on food in preparation for trouble and shops being closed during a week of marches and the general strike.

"It's traumatic what we're going through, but if it means an end to this nightmare, it will all be worth it," said Nancy Ramirez, 33, lining up for rice at a store in Caracas.

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