Caracas (AFP) - Clashes broke out Wednesday between supporters and opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as opposition protesters sought to show momentum in their push to oust him in a referendum.
Sticks, stones and punches flew on the Caribbean island of Margarita as red-clad Maduro supporters tried to block opponents determined to march on the town of Villa Rosa, an AFP photographer said.
Several protesters were wounded, said the center-right opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which accuses Maduro of steering Venezuela into an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food and medicine, spiraling inflation, and rampant crime.
The scuffles came as the opposition held nationwide anti-Maduro rallies, seeking to show its strength by having protesters sign largely symbolic petitions calling for him to face a recall referendum.
The rallies amounted to a dress-rehearsal for an official petition drive later this month, when the opposition will have just three days to gather the four million signatures required to force a recall vote.
That process, scheduled for October 26 to 28, will be overseen by electoral authorities at 1,356 designated sites across the country.
But the opposition is hoping to score a symbolic victory before then.
"If we get seven or eight million (signatures), it will send a message to Maduro that we want change now," said Ismael Dacorte, a 51-year-old lawyer, at one rally in the capital Caracas.
- 'Dark days' -
Maduro supporters held rival rallies of their own across the country.
Addressing the main one, in Caracas, Maduro hailed the strength of his socialist "revolution."
"Today the revolution is going on the offensive toward the years 2017, 2018 and beyond. What's ahead for the right are dark days of collapse, defeat and division," he said.
The speaker of the opposition-majority legislature, Henry Ramos Allup, fired back with equally strong words.
"Watch out: the people are mobilized to get rid of this band of thugs that's looting Venezuela," he said.
The clashes in Villa Rosa were the only immediate report of violence.
The town was also the scene of an anti-government demonstration that embarrassed Maduro in September, when he was greeted during a visit by residents banging pots and pans in protest. Some 30 people were arrested in the aftermath.
- 'Ticking bomb' -
As plunging crude prices have pushed OPEC-member Venezuela's oil-dependent economy to the brink of collapse, MUD has settled on a recall referendum as the best strategy to get rid of Maduro.
But electoral authorities have already dashed the opposition's hopes of ending 17 years of leftist rule.
They ruled in September that a recall referendum could only be held after January 10 -- the cut-off date to trigger a new presidential election, rather than simply transfer power to Maduro's hand-picked vice president until the end of his term in 2019.
Seven in 10 Venezuelans want a change in government, according to a recent poll.
But the fragmented opposition has struggled to stop the powerful political machine launched in 1999 by Maduro's mentor, the late president Hugo Chavez.
Rumors have swirled in recent days that Maduro could use the Supreme Court to block a recall referendum.
The court has blocked every opposition bill since MUD took control of the National Assembly in January, and handed Maduro a new victory Wednesday by ruling he could issue his 2017 budget by decree, bypassing lawmakers.
But with Venezuela on the verge of exploding into unrest, it would be a mistake for judges to quash a recall vote, warned political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.
"It would be like trying to deactivate a ticking bomb by throwing a grenade at it," he said.