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Venezuela bans protests against new assembly vote

The opposition say they will defy the ban ahead of President Maduro's controversial Constituent Assembly vote on Sunday.

Protests that could "affect" the controversial Constituent Assembly vote this weekend will be banned, the government of Venezuela announced on Thursday.

"National meetings and demonstrations, concentrations of people and any similar acts that may disturb or affect the normal development of the electoral process are prohibited throughout the country," Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said at a news conference in Caracas.

Reverol said the measure would be applied from midnight Friday until Tuesday, August 1.

Violators will be "punished with imprisonment for 5 to 10 years," Reverol warned.

The protest ban was issued on the second of a two-day national strike organised by the opposition in an attempt to thwart President Nicolas Maduro's plans to elect a Constituent Assembly that would have the power to rewrite the constitution.

Opposition parties have said the vote on the Constituent Assembly is a "fraud" to establish a "dictatorship" and planned massive marches in Caracas for Friday.

One congressman and opposition leader said the protest ban would not prevent Venezuelans from occupying the streets this weekend.

"The dictatorship says we can't protest from tomorrow. So? Tomorrow we will no longer take the streets in Caracas but in all Venezuela!", Guevara wrote on Twitter, just minutes after Reverol's speech.

'A huge confrontation'

Venezuela has grappled with deadly political and economic crises as low crude oil prices have forced the government to cut back or eliminate its socialist programmes.

The crises have fuelled public anger and fed massive protests over four months that have left 108 people dead, according to prosecutors. Five of them - including two minors - died in protests during the two-day strike.

Demonstrations have intensified in recent days as the opposition seeks to thwart Maduro's plans and remove him through early elections.

Fears of open civil conflict have prompted an exodus of thousands of Venezuelans into neighbouring Colombia.

Calls for dialogue

Meanwhile, Maduro on Thursday also called for talks with the opposition coalition to resolve the country’s political crisis.

"I propose to the opposition … to install in the next few hours a table of dialogue, a national agreement and reconciliation, a national table of understanding, to talk about peace and the country issues," Maduro said during a pro-government march in Caracas, adding he would like the "peace table" to be launched before the vote on Sunday.

The opposition is also calling for early elections and respect of the opposition-controlled congress, as well as cancelling the Constitutuent Assembly plans.

"These are all things that the government is highly unlikely to give in to because it would almost certainly mean - given the low popularity of the president - that he would lose control," said Newman.

International concern growing

International concern has mounted, with the United States, European Union, United Nations and most heavyweight Latin American nations urging Maduro to back down from his plan to hold a vote.

Some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose plans for the constituent assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

The US has responded to Maduro's intransigence by imposing economic sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials, freezing their US assets and forbidding US entities from doing business with them.

Maduro branded the US punishment "illegal, insolent and unprecedented".

The US on Thursday also ordered relatives of American diplomats to leave the Venezuelan capital ahead of Sunday's vote.

The State Department says it's also allowing US government workers to depart the embassy in Caracas and limiting the movement of those who stay. An updated travel warning also urges American citizens not to travel to Venezuela due to social unrest and violence.

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