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Venezuelan opposition calls off planned protest over vote result

Tensions were on the rise in Venezuela amid reports of violence that has claimed seven lives at election-related protests over the past two days. And in a move intended to reduce further violence, the opposition called off a major protest planned for Wednesday to demand a complete recount of Sunday’s contentious vote.

President-elect Nicolás Maduro, who was declared the winner with a 275,000-vote lead, accused the opposition of trying to discredit his administration and lay the groundwork for a coup.

The government says offices of the ruling PSUV party were attacked in three states, and that groups had damaged installations of the National Electoral Council, or CNE, and threatened workers. Maduro said seven people were killed Monday by opposition “hoards.”

“They have unleashed the demons of intolerance,” Maduro said, vowing to prosecute those responsible. “They want to get their hands on the power and deny the will of the people.”

Maduro’s rival in Sunday’s race, Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, said at a news conference that he called off Wednesday’s march because he received intelligence reports that the government planned to infiltrate the protest to provoke bloodshed. He had demanded a ballot-by-ballot recount because he said the election was plagued with irregularities.

Capriles said Maduro was seeking confrontation to keep the nation distracted from the recount petition, which is guaranteed by the constitution.

“Mr. Maduro doesn’t want us to talk about a vote recount,” Capriles said. “He wants to plunge the country into violence.”

With 99.34 percent of the vote counted, the CNE says Maduro won 50.78 percent of the vote, versus Capriles’ 48.95 percent. Almost 80 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

Maduro, who had previously favored a recount, accused Capriles of wanting to spark a coup similar to the one in 2002 that briefly ousted Chávez.

Fernando Julio, 56, a carpenter, said Venezuela had grown used to losing civil liberties during the 14-year rule of late-President Hugo Chávez.

“Protests work when there’s the rule of law and respect,” he said. “But here they just send the National Guard after you or chavistas and you’re forced to go home.”

Venezuela uses an electronic voting system that produces a paper trail, and the CNE said 54 percent of the vote was automatically audited Sunday night and there were no reports of problems.

On Tuesday, however, Jorge Ocejo Moreno, the head of the Christian Democrat Organization of America, or ODCA, one of the groups invited to watch the vote, said the auditing numbers are overstated. Among the 3,200 campaign violations and irregularities the opposition collected on Election Day, some of them are from witnesses claiming their site was not audited.

“Considering the small difference in votes between the two candidates, it’s very important to audit all of the voting tables to guarantee the reliability of the results,” Ocejo said.

Other observers, including the Union of South American Nations, have said the election was transparent and fair. Vicente Díaz, the only opposition member of the CNE, said he had no doubts that the results were accurate but said the recount would help calm the nation.

Capriles said his camp was continuing to collect thousands of additional alleged irregularities to present to the CNE. For example, he said, opposition witnesses were forced to leave 283 voting centers, some at gunpoint. At 564 centers, he said, government backers were accompanying voters to the booth.

The United Sates, meanwhile, said it is not yet ready to recognize Maduro as the winner and called Tuesday for a full recount of the votes. Maduro responded in a new round of criticism aimed at Washington, saying the U.S. Embassy was behind most of the unrest.

Reinaldo Corales, the president of the union of CNE workers, told local media that colleagues had been harassed and threatened. He asked the nation not to take its frustration out on civil servants.

“That’s not the responsibility of the CNE or its workers,” he said. “We just add up the votes and that’s how it came out.”

The opposition has 20 days to make its case for a recount, but the administration isn’t waiting. On Monday, Maduro, 50, was declared the official winner and on Friday will be sworn in during a ceremony before the National Assembly. He has invited supporters to a mass rally in Caracas to celebrate.

Capriles called on supporters to bang pots Tuesday night and during Friday’s inauguration to protest the election results.

Maduro’s narrow lead shocked his supporters. He had been running far ahead in many polls on the wave of sympathy generated by March 5 death of Hugo Chávez.

Maduro said he will work to build a new majority but says there’s no reason to make “pacts” with the opposition. While his electoral majority was thin, he will enjoy a majority in the legislature and 20 out 23 governors are government allies.

As reports emerged late Monday that offices of the ruling PSUV party were attacked in three states, Anzoátegui, Barinas and Táchira states, Maduro said Capriles was personally to blame.

“Is this the Venezuela you want, losing candidate?” Maduro said. “You are responsible for this fire because you’re the one who called for violence on the street.”