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Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

White paint thrown by protesters covers the boots of Bolivarian National Police, who block an opposition march in Caracas, June 7, 2016. (AP/Ariana Cubillos)

Anti-Maduro protests in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela’s opposition cleared its first hurdle Tuesday in its uphill race to call a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro, whom it blames for driving the country to the brink of collapse.

But the leftist leader sent riot police to fire tear gas, blocking protesters from marching on the electoral authority’s headquarters, underlining the tension tearing at the country as it staggers through a painful crisis.

Maduro dismissed the effort to oust him, branding it “invalid.”

After weeks of pressuring the National Electoral Board (CNE) to allow the referendum process to go ahead, the opposition announced the board had accepted as valid 1.3 million signatures on a petition calling for a recall vote.

The decision moves the lengthy recall process to the next step, in which at least 200,000 signatories must confirm their identity with fingerprint scans.

Under the constitution, the opposition would then have to gather 4 million more signatures — 20 percent of the electorate — to trigger a recall vote.

Maduro’s opponents are racing to call a referendum before Jan. 10 — four years into his six-year term — when a successful recall vote would trigger new elections rather than transfer power to the vice president.

The opposition warns that the once-booming oil giant risks escalating unrest if authorities do not allow a referendum on Maduro’s rule, which has seen an economic downturn marked by severe shortages of food, electricity, medicine and other basic needs.

Seeking to pressure the electoral authorities, whom it accuses of dragging their feet, the opposition tried to march on CNE headquarters, but heavily armored riot police broke up the protest.

It is the third time in recent days that police have forcefully stopped attempts to march on the CNE. Protesters had angry words for the police, shouting “Traitors!” and “You’re hungry too!”

About 1,000 demonstrators took part in the march, lining up behind a giant Venezuelan flag and chanting, “This government will fall!” before police scattered them. (AFP)

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