Crowds gather in Venezuela's capital for rival protests

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader. (AFP Photo)

Swelling crowds of demonstrators carrying flags and blowing whistles gathered in Venezuela's capital Saturday, led by opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who was urging masses into the streets to force President Nicolás Maduro from power.

Guaidó called nationwide demonstrations to re-ignite a campaign against Maduro launched in January that has lost steam in recent months. Maduro's supporters are also gathering for a rival demonstration.

"Our victory today is coming together in this struggle and demanding freedom," Guaidó tweeted.

Lisbeth Guerra said she closed her two electronics shops in Caracas to join the march because she is fed up with two decades of socialist rule that have ruined the economy and driven 20 of her relatives from the country.

"More than anything, I want other nations in the world to take note of our crisis," she said, joining hundreds of Guaidó supporters at a plaza in the opposition stronghold of Altamira.

Guaidó, 36, leaped to the centre of Venezuela's political fray when the opposition-dominated National Assembly appointed him as its leader.

On January 23, arguing that Maduro's reelection was illegitimate, he declared that he was assuming presidential powers pending new elections.

The United Nations Human Rights office urged Venezuelan authorities to allow peaceful protests without any acts of intimidation and violence. Few security forces were visible on Caracas' streets early in the day.

Maduro's socialist party also called its members to demonstrate in solidarity with Bolivia's Evo Morales, who resigned the presidency and fled into exile in Mexico on November 10, claiming a coup d'etat following massive protests accusing him of engineering a fraudulent reelection.

Maduro backers wearing red shirts boarded buses with blaring salsa music for a rally scheduled to culminate at the presidential palace in the center of the capital.

The ounce-wealthy nation is gripped by crisis, which critics blame on years of failed socialist rule, while Maduro frequently blames right-wing forces backed by the United States set on overthrowing him to steal Venezuela's vast oil reserves.

"The streets of Caracas are filled with joy with people defending their right to democracy," Maduro tweeted.

"Let's tell the world Venezuela is strong, in peace and building a socialist homeland." 

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