Flames at Venezuela demo over leader's crisis maneuver

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan police fired tear gas and hooded protesters hurled Molotov cocktails as thousands rallied Wednesday in anger at President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution.

Flames erupted in the latest of more than a month of clashes that prosecutors say have killed 31 people in the oil-rich nation, stricken by food shortages.

At least one protester caught fire and two opposition lawmakers were among various people injured, AFP reporters at the scene said.

Clashes broke out after riot police blocked demonstrators from advancing towards state institutions in central Caracas, where Maduro addressed a rally of thousands of his supporters.

The opposition accuses the elected president of maneuvering to strengthen his grip on power. He has for months been resisting calls for a vote on removing him from office.

- Clouds of tear gas -

Clouds of grey smoke from tear gas canisters filled the air as police with riot shields and trucks advanced along a major avenue in the east of the capital.

Protesters hurled stones and set fire to barricades. Officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to push them back.

Protesters were enraged by the socialist president launching procedures with the electoral council to draw up a new constitution.

"I am convening a national constituent assembly of citizens with deep popular involvement so that our people... with their voice can decide the destiny of our homeland," he said in a speech at the council.

Private polls indicate that more than 70 percent of people interviewed do not support Maduro, who was elected in 2013 to succeed his late mentor Hugo Chavez.

Maduro said the constitutional reform body would not include political parties with seats in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, but representatives of social groups traditionally loyal to him.

His center-right opponents and some international powers said that was a way of dodging local elections due this year and a presidential poll due in late 2018.

"It is a fraud by Maduro's side," said the president's most prominent opponent, senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

"Since they cannot win elections they want to impose the Cuban electoral model to keep themselves in power," he said. Cuba, the only one-party communist regime in the Americas, is Maduro's closest ally.

- 'Insurgency' -

The opposition blames Maduro for an economic crisis that has led to shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.

"We are tired of this government that has been destroying the country for 18 years," said one protester, housewife Nancy Trejos, 62.

"We want to be free, to have food, medicine and public safety."

Maduro says the crisis is the result of a US-backed capitalist conspiracy.

He accused the opposition of "moving into a phase of armed insurgency. In these grave circumstances, the only way to ensure peace is a constituent assembly."

- History of coups -

The past month of protests has shut down many schools and businesses.

The city's once-vibrant nightlife has died due to fears of violence and looting.

Rival reports of attacks by government-backed thugs or pro-opposition agitators have sown fear among citizens.

Venezuela has seen three attempted military coups since 1992. In 2014, clashes at anti-government protests killed 43 people.

Maduro retains the public backing of the military.

The crisis has been fueled by falling prices for Venezuela's crucial oil exports, but so far the government has also avoided defaulting on its foreign debts.

- US sanctions plan -

The crisis in Venezuela, which exports most of its oil to the United States, has raised concern in Washington.

US senators unveiled proposed legislation on Wednesday aimed at punishing Venezuelan officials deemed to be undermining democracy.

It would also provide $10 million for humanitarian aid and $9.5 million to human rights groups.