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CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela is nearing a showdown, with President Nicolas Maduro vowing to install a new constituent assembly that will trump every other branch of government and opposition leaders calling for a mass protest to ensure delegates know their arrival is unwelcome.
The first meeting of the 545 delegates is expected to convene Friday at the legislative palace in Caracas — only yards (meters) from the room where the opposition-controlled National Assembly holds its sessions.
The legislative palace has been witness to bloody clashes in recent weeks and Friday's installation of the all-powerful assembly, which Maduro has vowed to use to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity, sets the stage for an intensified power struggle. Opposition lawmakers in congress have vowed they will only be removed by force.
"The only way they'll get us out of here is by killing us," declared Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly's first vice president. "They will never have the seat that the people of Venezuela gave us."
Sunday's election of the constituent assembly has come under mounting scrutiny after the CEO of an international voting technology company said Wednesday that "without any doubt" the voter turnout numbers had been tampered with — accusations that Maduro and the National Electoral Council have dismissed. A growing list of foreign nations has refused to recognize the assembly and many within Venezuela fear its installation will open a dark chapter in the nation's history.
"There has been a gradual erosion of democratic practice and this is a significant line that has been crossed," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. "To attach the term democracy to Venezuela with this new constituent assembly is on very weak ground."
The U.S. State Department called the assembly illegitimate Thursday, saying the election was rigged to further entrench "the Maduro dictatorship."
"The United States will not recognize the National Constituent Assembly," spokeswoman Heath Nauert said.
On the eve of the assembly's installation, the Spanish Embassy in Caracas was attacked with gasoline bombs. Prosecutors said two individuals on a motorcycle launched the devices, which started a fire but caused no reported injuries.
Carlos Romero, a professor and foreign relations analyst in Caracas, called the incident "extremely grave" and said it could further complicate relations between Venezuela and Madrid. Spain's ambassador to Venezuela was among a group of legislators who visited the National Assembly on Tuesday in a show of support after the constituent assembly ellection.
Prominent constituent assembly members like Diosdado Cabello, the leader of the ruling socialist party, have said they plan to target the opposition-controlled congress and the country's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime supporter of the late Hugo Chavez who recently broke with Maduro. As one of its first tasks, Maduro has ordered the assembly to declare Ortega Diaz's office in a state of emergency and entirely restructure it.
In a continuing show of defiance, Ortega Diaz filed papers Thursday seeking a court order to block installation of the new assembly. The request, filed to a lower court in an apparent attempt to circumvent the government-stacked Supreme Court, was almost certain to be denied.
She also ordered prosecutors to investigate the allegations of election tampering raised by Antonio Mugica, the head of the voting technology firm Smartmatic. Mugica told reporters in London on Wednesday that results recorded by his company's systems and those reported by the National Electoral Council show the official turnout count was off by at least 1 million votes.
Pledges by opposition lawmakers to remain in power no matter what action the constituent assembly takes have opened the possibility of two governing bodies operating side by side — neither recognizing the other.
One opposition lawmaker, Henry Ramos Allup, said this week that if forcibly expelled from the legislative palace the National Assembly could potentially hold its sessions at another site.
Anti-government leaders are calling on Venezuelans to protest Friday as the new constituent assembly members take office.
The National Electoral Council said more than 8 million Venezuelans voted in the election, though independent analysts and opposition leaders contend the turnout was almost certainly less than half that figure.
Venezuela's president defiantly dismissed those allegations, telling the new constituent members Wednesday night that he not only stood by the official count, but believed a further 2 million people would have voted if not blocked by anti-government protesters.
With the opposition boycotting the election, virtually all the candidates were government supporters, so turnout was watched as one of the only indicators of how much popular support there is for the constituent assembly.
Despite questions surrounding the vote, Maduro has all but ensured there is nothing that can stop the government from seating the new delegates.
"They are bent on plowing ahead with this power grab," Shifter said, "and this is not going to stand in the way."
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.
Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/fisanchezn
Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario