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Venezuela to consider early elections of opposition-held parliament

Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly on Monday announced the creation of a commission to consider early elections of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, the official news agency AVN reported.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido had warned that President Nicolas Maduro's government would call early elections in order to dissolve the National Assembly, the country's parliament and a bastion of the opposition.

It was possible the commission could set an election date within 2019, media reports quoted Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello as saying. Regular elections are not due until late 2020.

The opposition has called on Maduro to resign and for fresh presidential elections to be held, but Cabello said that only the National Assembly could be elected ahead of schedule.

The Constituent Assembly decided to create the commission in an extraordinary session that also rejected the new sanctions against Venezuela announced by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration last week.

Calling early elections would lead to "a phase of greater conflict," Guaido warned in a video published on his Twitter account on Sunday.

Created in 2017, the Constituent Assembly was widely seen as a bid by Maduro to replace the National Assembly, which had been stripped of its powers for allegedly swearing in lawmakers whose elections were not valid.

Guaido was elected parliament speaker in January and then declared himself Venezuela's interim president, winning the support of dozens of countries for his campaign to oust Maduro.

Guaido said on Sunday that the government was preparing to "massively persecute" lawmakers in the National Assembly by stripping them of their parliamentary immunity.

The authorities had already lifted the immunity of more than a dozen legislators in that body. The Constituent Assembly accepted a proposal of the Supreme Court to lift the immunities of four more lawmakers on Monday, the daily El Nacional reported.

The Constituent Assembly rejected the new sanctions announced by the U.S. administration, which froze the assets of the Venezuelan government, pro-government broadcaster Telesur reported.

The government is hoping to collect 13 million signatures for a manifesto criticizing the sanctions it wants to present to the U.N. General Assembly.

"After the bid to close (the National Assembly) ... have no doubt that we shall know how to act with the backing of the International Community and the strength of the mobilization of our people," parliament tweeted on Monday.

The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela, which withdrew its staff after Caracas severed diplomatic relations with Washington in January, also issued a warning against the eventual closure of the National Assembly.

"Any attack against the Assembly is an attack against democracy," the embassy tweeted.

Maduro won a second term in an election boycotted by most of the opposition last year. He has presided over an economic meltdown that has sent millions of Venezuelans fleeing the crisis abroad.

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