Candidate shot dead hours before Venezuelan election

Voters in Venezuela are going to the polls to elect a constituent assembly that President Nicolas Maduro wants to rewrite the country's constitution in order to concentrate power in his hands.

According to Venezuelan prosecutors, the unknown assailants broke into the candidate's home overnight in the southeastern city of Ciudad Bolivar and killed him by firing multiple shots.

Ahead of the vote, Maduro sought to prevent further demonstrations by issuing a decree saying any anti-government protesters risked up to 10 years in prison. "This was the same step that was taken in the last referendum to change the constitution".

"Vice President Pence once again called for the full and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the National Assembly, and respect for human rights in Venezuela".

More than four months of opposition-led protests against Maduro have left more than 100 people dead, exposing deep rifts in the oil-rich country suffering from food and medicine shortages.

In the western state of Tachira, a group of several hundred people on Saturday burned voting machines that had been set up in two schools.

In the west of Caracas, national guard troops fanning out to put down any disruption to the election used armored vehicles and fired teargas to disperse protesters blocking roads.

Maduro, president since 2013, cast his ballot shortly after polling stations opened at 6 a.m.

Turnout will be a key factor to give the vote a facade of legitimacy.

Surveys by Datanalisis, a pro-opposition polling firm, show more than 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed the idea of the new assembly - and 80 percent reject Maduro's leadership.

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Fear of the violence worsening has rippled across the region, and beyond.

"This is the most important election held in Venezuela's political system", he said in a broadcast speech.

The United States this week imposed sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials, including police and army chiefs.

Air France and Iberia both announced they were suspending their flights to the country during the weekend vote.

Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met with opposition leaders, and on July 26, the US added 13 senior Venezuelan officials to its sanctions list as part of efforts to deter the constitution rewrite. "But it's only aggravating them".

Colombia and Panama - refuges for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos at home - have said they will not recognize the results of Sunday's election in Venezuela.

As Maduro effectively steers his country toward one-party rule, he sets it on a collision course with the United States, which buys almost half of Venezuela's oil.

Some in Maduro's administration have broken ranks, most prominently his attorney general.

"The UK joins with the Vatican, the neighbours of Venezuela and our European friends to urge the government to enter constructive talks with the Opposition".

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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