A wave of bloodshed swept Venezuela Sunday as troops cracked down on violent protests against elections to choose the members of a powerful assembly that President Nicolas Maduro has tasked with writing a new constitution.
Protesters attacked polling stations and barricaded streets around the country, drawing a bloody response from security forces, who opened fire with live ammunition in some cases.
At least 10 people were killed, prompting the United States to threaten further "strong and swift" sanctions on Maduro's government.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles called on Venezuelans to continue defying the deeply unpopular Maduro with new protests against the election and the "massacre" he said accompanied it.
"We do not recognise this fraudulent process," he said at the close of voting, calling for nationwide marches Monday and a mass protest in Caracas Wednesday, the day the new "Constituent Assembly" is due to be installed.
Maduro has decreed a ban on protests during and after the vote, threatening prison terms of up to 10 years.
The voting was held to elect a super-assembly that Maduro vowed would begin a new era of combat in the crisis-stricken nation. This constituent assembly will have powers to rewrite the Constitution.
After the postponement of regional elections, four months of violence and Maduro's repeated refusal to heed decisions by Congress, voters are not being asked whether they wish to proceed with the assembly, only to select its 545 members from more than 6,100 candidates representing a broad array of Socialist Party allies.
The opposition, which has power in the National Assembly, says more than 7 million voters – from a population of around 32 million – overwhelmingly rejected Maduro's proposal in an unofficial referendum it organised earlier this month.
Maduro has promised the new assembly will restore peace after months of opposition protests during which more than 115 people have been killed.
"We've stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence," Maduro said. "Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country."
"This is war"
"I don't know where their hate comes from.... This is war!" one resident, Conchita Ramirez, told Vivo Play television network as she described troops firing at buildings and people.
A 39-year-old lawyer who was a candidate in Venezuela's southeastern town of Ciudad Bolivar was killed from multiple shots fired by assailants who broke into his home overnight, prosecutors said, adding the motive was as yet unknown.
In a protest in the northeast town of Cumana, a 30-year-old regional secretary for a youth opposition party was shot dead in an anti-election protest.
The prosecutors' office said Ricardo Campos died in circumstances that had yet to be investigated. But an opposition lawmaker, Henry Ramos Allup, said Campos, a regional secretary for the youth opposition party Democratic Action, was shot dead.
The bodies of two men shot dead, aged 28 and 39, were found after a protest in the western state of Merida on Sunday, the prosecutors' office said
Prosecutors also said a 38-year-old man was killed in a demonstration on Saturday in Merida.
Another protester, a man aged 43, was shot dead in the western city of Barquisimeto, the sixth recorded since late Saturday, added to a death toll of nearly 120 over the past four months.
In western Caracas, national guard troops fanned out to put down any disruption to the election, using armoured vehicles, rubber bullets and teargas to disperse protesters blocking roads.
Four soldiers were wounded in a homemade-fireworks blast directed at them in the east of the capital.
Soldiers also violently moved against protesters in the second city of Maracaibo, in the west, and Puerto Ordaz in the east.
TRT World spoke to journalist Juan Carlos Lamas who has more on the story from Caracas.
The opposition has called for a boycott and mass demonstrations against the election, which it called a bid by Maduro to install a dictatorship with the backing of the military.
Critics say the assembly will allow Maduro to dissolve the opposition-run Congress, delay future elections and rewrite electoral rules to prevent the socialists from being voted out of power in the South American nation.
"Even if they win today, this won't last long," said opposition supporter Berta Hernandez, a 60-year-old medic, in a wealthy Caracas district.
"I'll continue on the streets because, not long from now, this will come to an end."
Venezuela last rewrote its Constitution in 1999 under late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, strengthening the executive and enshrining rights to healthcare and education.
But unlike Maduro, Chavez first won voter approval for the idea via a referendum.
Venezuelans appeared to be abstaining in massive numbers on Sunday in a show of silent protest against a vote to select a constitutional assembly giving the government virtually unlimited powers.
Associated Press journalists toured more than two dozen polling places in neighbourhoods across the capital, including many traditional strongholds of the ruling socialist party in southern and western Caracas.
Virtually all the polling places saw hours-long lines of thousands of people in past elections over the last two decades of socialist government.
Of the dozens of others sites seen by the AP, two in the loyalist-heavy neighbourhood of El Valle had lines of approximately 200 to 400 people.
All the others had at most a couple of dozen voters, and many had less than a half-dozen or were completely empty.
Opinion polls say more than 70 percent of the country is opposed to Sunday's vote.
The US last week sanctioned 13 Socialist Party leaders, in part as a response to the election. President Donald Trump's administration has vowed additional economic measures if the vote takes place.
Neighbouring Colombia says it will not recognise the results.
In the capital of Barinas, the home state of former President Hugo Chavez, turnout appeared low.
"I voted for Chavez but this isn't what he offered us. The country's in a bad state and getting worse," said construction worker Pedro Pena, 48, saying he just came out to see which of his neighbours voted.
TRT World spoke to consultant and journalist Colin Harding who explains the latest in Venezuelan politics.
Maduro kicked off voting by casting his ballot on 6 am Sunday in a west Caracas polling station. Maduro has asked for the global acceptance, saying he is the victim of right-wing governments around the world.
"I'm the first voter in the country. I ask God for his blessings so the people can freely exercise their democratic right to vote," the president said. He was accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, who is a candidate to sit on the new assembly.
He blames the country's economic malaise – from food and medicine shortages to triple-digit inflation – on an "economic war" by his adversaries.
Maduro says opposition protests have been driven by vandalism and arbitrary violence that will not be brought to an end without the constitutional assembly.
Some government adversaries are seeking to block the ballot.
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.
Around 50 voting centres in that state will not be in operation because demonstrators destroyed voting materials or prevented them from being set up in the first place, according to an opposition representative.
The new, all-powerful assembly is due to sit within 72 hours of results being officially certified.
Government leaders have suggested it will swiftly take measures against chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who has openly criticised the assembly vote, as well as the opposition congress.
"With the constitutional assembly, we're going to end the sabotage of the bourgeois (Congress)," Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello said during a campaign rally.