Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's opposition Friday urged "resistance" after the government blocked its efforts to force a recall vote on President Nicolas Maduro, but vowed peaceful action to keep a political crisis from erupting into violence.
Hundreds of students took to the streets in protest after authorities halted a drive to hold a referendum on removing the leftist president, creating what the opposition called a "very dangerous scenario."
"The government wants violence or submission," said Jesus Torrealba, spokesman of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the center right-dominated opposition coalition.
"Our response will be civic courage, peaceful resistance. A country under a dictatorship must fight bravely for a vote," he told reporters during a break in the MUD's emergency meetings.
Authorities on Thursday quashed the opposition's main strategy to get rid of the man they accuse of driving the oil-rich country to the brink of economic collapse.
The National Electoral Council (CNE) said it had indefinitely suspended the recall referendum process, after criminal courts in five states ruled the opposition had committed fraud in an initial petition drive.
The news came as the opposition was gearing up for the last hurdle in the complex, multi-stage process: a massive three-day drive next week to collect signatures from four million voters demanding a recall referendum.
- 'Dangerous scenario' -
Opposition leaders were due to give a press conference later Friday to announce their next moves.
Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate and governor of the state of Miranda, warned on Twitter that the government was taking the country into a "very dangerous scenario, and an even greater crisis."
Analysts have warned there is a risk of unrest in the country of 30 million people, where 43 people died during riots in 2014.
"The referendum was going to be a pressure valve," said Jose Vicente Haro, a constitutional expert.
"When the institutional paths are closed, there is a rise in violence and political conflict."
The United States -- which Maduro has accused of plotting to overthrow him -- said it was "deeply concerned" by the decision to halt the referendum process.
"By doing so, we believe the CNE prevents the Venezuelan people from exercising their important constitutional right," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
- Travel bans -
Capriles said he and seven other opposition figures had received court orders barring them from leaving the country.
Maduro's camp hinted it would seek to have opposition leaders jailed over the alleged fraud.
It has previously sidelined opponents by jailing them, such as Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of the anti-government protests in 2014.
"Let us hope that those responsible will now be sought out and detained and go to prison for the deception they have committed," Maduro's number two, Diosdado Cabello, said in a speech.
- 'Civil disobedience' -
Constitutional law specialist Jose Ignacio Hernandez said the electoral authorities' ruling stood on legally shaky ground.
"A criminal court can't annul an electoral process," he told AFP.
Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, called on Venezuelans to respond with "civil disobedience," including by blocking highways Saturday.
"In the street, with determination, strength, conviction and unity, we will tell this dictatorship government to get out," she told a forum.
- Oily problem -
The opposition had been confident it would collect signatures from the required 20 percent of the electorate to move on to a full referendum.
Public support for Maduro has crumbled under the pressure of a crippling recession, soaring inflation and widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
A recent poll found more than 75 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro.
The socialist president, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez in 2013 and whose term ends in 2019, has vowed to hold on to power.
The MUD says Maduro and his allies control the courts and electoral authorities and are using them to cling to power.
Maduro says the crisis is a capitalist conspiracy.
He accused the opposition of "gigantic fraud," in a speech before leaving on a tour of the Middle East.
There he planned to push his plan for major oil producers to slash output in a bid to boost prices and get Venezuela's oil-dependent economy out of crisis.