World

Venezuela court rejects call to stop constitution rewrite

Venezuela's Supreme Court on Monday rejected the chief prosecutor's motion to stop President Nicolas Maduro's push to rewrite the constitution as the restive nation continued to be rocked by protests and a transit strike.

The Supreme Court's electoral branch declared Luisa Ortega Diaz's request inadmissible on the same day anti-government demonstrators were marching toward the high court to protest its refusal to stop Maduro's special assembly.

Opposition leaders said pro-government armed groups known as "colectivos" clashed with protesters and journalists near the Supreme Court and witnesses' videos showed fistfights and people being shoved to the ground at the demonstration site. National guardsmen in black helmets and bulletproof vests stretched across a street with plastic shields, blocking protesters from reaching the court.

The decision came four days after Ortega Diaz made an impassioned plea on the Supreme Court steps, grasping Venezuela's small blue constitution book in her hands and declaring the future of the nation's democracy was at stake.

Two months of anti-government protests have left at least 68 people dead as demonstrators demand new presidential elections in the face of triple-digit inflation that keeps rising, soaring crime and crippling food and medical shortages.

Venezuelans in Caracas awoke Monday to find their city paralyzed by a public transportation strike that union leaders said stretched through 90 percent of the capital. Transit workers said they were protesting unsafe work conditions and demanding the release of a colleague detained nearly two weeks ago. Bus driver Santos Quevedo was charged with terrorism after allegedly transporting a group of opposition protesters, but local reports say the government opponents forced him to give them a ride.

As during previous protests, the government closed several metro stations.

Speaking outside the Supreme Court, union leaders said transit workers are the first to wake up in the morning and often exposed to dangerous conditions in a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

"Every time we leave our homes we don't know if we'll return alive," said Pedro Jimenez, president of a local union called the Southwest Transporters Bloc. He demanded that the government take action to ensure drivers' safety.

Three kilometers (1.9 miles) away, the Venezuelan Red Cross draped a giant white flag with a red cross above its entrance, an act usually reserved for extraordinary events such as natural disasters, to identify it as a neutral safe haven. The last time the flag is believed to have been raised was in April 2013 during the presidential election to replace the late President Hugo Chavez, which Maduro won by a narrow vote.

The Red Cross raised the flag again as a protective measure in light of recent protests in which authorities have used tear gas near the institution's hospital, said Jose Ramon Gonzalez, the group's national relief director. Though the institution itself has not been attacked, Gonzalez said the flag is meant to help protect both medical aid workers and patients arriving at the hospital.

Gonzalez told The Associated Press in an interview that the agency has treated 235 patients in Caracas during the recent wave of protests. He earlier said it had treated more than 500 people nationwide. The majority have suffered from ailments related to inhaling tear gas, being struck by rubber bullets and surface wounds.

More than 1,000 people have been injured nationwide in a wave of unrest unleashed after the Supreme Court in late March stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its last powers, a decision later reserved amid a storm of international criticism. Many of the protests have ended with state security launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, some of whom throw rocks and even jars filled with feces at officers.

Maduro has vowed to resolve the crisis by convening a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. But the opposition refuses to participate, denouncing the push as another means by which he will further consolidate his power.

Ortega Diaz, whose agency is semi-autonomous, has emerged as one of the most critical voices of Maduro within the government. A long-time loyalist, she has denounced the constitutional assembly as an affront to the legacy of Hugo Chavez, who crafted the nation's current constitution.

Maduro administration officials have criticized her as a de facto opposition leader responsible for the current wave of violence.

Monday's ruling appeared to further alienate Ortega Diaz from pro-government officials. The chief prosecutor introduced a new complaint contesting the appointment of 13 Supreme Court magistrates and 21 substitute judges approved by the National Assembly in 2015 shortly before the opposition took office. Critics say the judges were quickly ushered in for 12-year terms to assure government control of the nation's highest court, an assertion the Maduro administration denies.

Speaking to Union Radio, Ortega Diaz said her latest legal maneuver was an attempt to "restore the stability of the country." She added that her relatives have received threats and that she would hold Maduro responsible for anything that might happen to them.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's president accused "terrorists" of attacking the headquarters of the court's executive body in the outskirts of Caracas. Maikel Moreno provided few details but photos posted on the Supreme Court's Twitter account showed parts of the building on fire. Videos shared by government officials captured a plume of dark smoke rising above the building, blaming opposition protesters.

Moreno said he was moving the court's office to another location because its current site in greater Caracas "is a territory without law."

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Associated Press reporter Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.