Venezuela Supreme Court building set on fire as anti-Maduro protests intensify

CARACAS – Anti-government protesters set fire to the Supreme Court building in Venezuela after the apex court rejected the chief prosecutor’s motion to stop Nicolas Maduro’s push to rewrite the constitution.

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Clashes at daily protests in Venezuela calling for the socialist president to quit have left 68 people dead since April 1.

Opposition leaders said pro-government armed groups known as ‘colectivos’ clashed with protesters and journalists near the Supreme Court on Monday and witnesses’ videos showed fistfights and people being shoved to the ground at the demonstration site.

Mr. Maduro says Venezuela is the victim of an “economic war” that he says can only be addressed by a constituent assembly.

The elections council has set an election for the assembly for July 30. The opposition is refusing to participate in the vote, saying it is rigged in favor of the Socialist Party.

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Protesters blame Maduro for an economic crisis that has caused desperate shortages of food and medicine in the oil-rich country. Maduro says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.

The president has launched moves to set up an elected assembly to reform the constitution in response to the protests, but his opponents say that is a ploy to cling to power.

The supreme court Monday voted to reject a motion that would prevent Mr. Maduro from rewriting the country’s constitution.

Fanned by anger at triple-digit inflation along with shortages of food and medicine, protests have grown smaller but more violent over the past two months, with dozens killed and thousands injured.

VIDEO: Man set alight during anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela

Luisa Ortega, a former ally of Mr. Maduro who has turned against him and the ruling Socialist Party, has questioned his handling of opposition street protests in recent weeks and challenged his plan to rewrite a constitution brought in by late leader Hugo Chavez.

State officials have launched a series of verbal attacks on Ms. Ortega, ranging from questioning her sanity to accusing her of promoting violence.

She said she would hold the government responsible if her family was harmed.

In April, Ms. Ortega successfully challenged a Supreme Court decision to assume the powers of the opposition-controlled legislature, making her the highest official in years to openly break with the ruling party.

She filed a Supreme Court challenge last week to Mr Maduro’s plan to elect a legislative super-body known as a constituent assembly that will have the power to rewrite the constitution and in some cases dissolve state institutions.

The Supreme Court rejected the challenge on Monday.

“The electoral chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice declares that the (challenge) filed by Luisa Ortega Diaz is inadmissible because it is an inept accumulation of pretensions,” the court said on Twitter.

In response, Ms. Ortega launched another legal challenge, this time claiming that 13 judges appointed to the court in 2015 were put there via an “irregular” process and that they should be replaced.

Police arrested 24 people for their involvement in the daylight attack on a busy office block, which was condemned by Mr. Maduro as a terrorist act. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said it was the work of government agitators.

Outside the Supreme Court headquarters in downtown Caracas, protesters backing Ms Ortega were confronted earlier by government supporters.

National guardsmen in black helmets and bulletproof vests stretched across a street with plastic shields, blocking protesters from reaching the court.

As during previous protests, the government closed several metro stations. And Venezuelans in Caracas awoke Monday to find their city paralyzed by a public transportation strike that union leaders said stretched through 90 per cent of the capital.

More than 1,000 people have been injured nationwide in a wave of unrest unleashed after the Supreme Court in late March stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its last powers, a decision later reserved amid a storm of international criticism.