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Deadly election day in Venezuela as protesters clash with troops

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Protests clash in Caracas, Venezuela over President Nicolas Maduroi calling for a Constituent National Assembly.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Deadly clashes between protesters and police marred voting on Sunday, as Venezuelans cast ballots on a controversial measure that could mark a turning point for their country.

The election will allow President Nicolás Maduro to replace Venezuela’s current legislative body — the National Assembly — with a new institution called the Constituent Assembly that will have the power to rewrite the constitution.

The voting follows weeks of violent street protests in which many people have been killed or injured. On Sunday the death toll rose sharply with at least six people — including two teenagers — killed at protests and a National Guard officer also reported dead by the Attorney General’s Office.

The death toll from the unrest ongoing since early April is 121, authorities said. That number does not include at least two of Sunday’s deaths, in which the reasons for the killings are under investigation.

Polls were scheduled to close at 6 p.m. ET, but officials extended voting by one hour.

Maduro, in a 2½ minute message posted to Twitter, called the vote a historic moment.

“This has been and is a successful day with great participation,” he said. “… Today is a day of victory.”

Clashes in the streets

National Guardsmen clashed with opposition protesters and police fired tear gas at crowds in Caracas. As dozens of police officers rode motorcycles through the Altamira neighborhood, a large explosion went off. Agence France-Presse video showed two officers, each with a leg on fire as comrades rushed to help them.

At one spot in the capital, opposition demonstrators set up barricades on a highway.

News broke early that one of the candidates in the election, lawyer José Félix Pineda, had been shot dead in his home on Saturday and that opposition leader Ricardo Campos died Sunday morning.

The attorney general’s office tweeted that a state prosecutor is investigating Pineda’s death.

“A group of people broke into the home of the victim in the Brisas del Sur sector and shot him multiple times,” the attorney general’s office said in a tweet. Pineda is listed as candidate number 3 in Bolivar state.

A state prosecutor also is investigating the death of Campos, youth secretary for Accion Democratica, an opposition group. He died in Cumana, a coastal town 250 miles east of Caracas. The circumstances of his death have not been disclosed.

Young Venezuelans have taken to the streets for months to protest the vote, known locally as “la constituyente,” or the constituent. The Venezuelan National Guard and protesters clash nearly every day.

The polls opened at 6 a.m. ET Sunday, with nearly 380,000 troops guarding voting stations, according to a government release. Many cast their ballots in support of the government’s initiative.

Elio Herrera, who voted early in a Caracas neighborhood, called the exercise “democratic and popular.”

“It was a quick and simple process,” Herrera said, describing the ambiance at the polling station as happy and hopeful.

Protest banned by government

Experts have said the outcome is a foregone conclusion: Maduro will be able to consolidate political power. The opposition to Maduro fears the vote will erode democracy and give the Venezuelan leader sweeping authority.

Maduro’s administration has deemed any protests illegal, threatening anyone who defies the no-protest order with up to 10 years in prison.

Maduro, who said he was the first voter in Sunday’s election, called casting the first vote a symbol of the independence and sovereignty of Venezuela.

He accused US President Donald Trump of trying to “prevent the people from carrying out its right to vote,” and boasted that his government is seeing through the vote despite international pressure.

“The Constituent Assembly will be the space, the power of powers, the superpower that will, so to speak, recover the national spirit, find reconciliation, justice, find the truth.”

Maduro’s opponents control the National Assembly, holding 112 of the body’s 167 seats, and have been battling with him for political power since they won a majority of seats in December 2015. Before the winners of those elections took office, Maduro stacked the country’s Supreme Court with loyalists to prevent his own impeachment.

The proposed Constituent Assembly would be made up of 545 members, all nominated by Maduro’s administration. Nominees include his wife, Cilia Flores, and prominent loyalists such as former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and former Vice President Diosdado Cabello.

The opposition hasn’t submitted any candidates for the vote because it doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the election. Ultimately, the vote and the creation of Maduro’s Constituent Assembly would give the President immense political power.

Maduro says the vote will help bring peace to a polarized country, with all branches of the government falling under the political movement founded by Maduro’s late mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

Critics in Venezuela and abroad argue a Maduro mandate would erode any last signs of democracy in the country. “It would give the government the opportunity to turn Venezuela into a one-party state without any of the trappings of democracy,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business association.

US President Donald Trump recently said in a statement that Maduro “dreams of being a dictator.” His administration sanctioned 13 Venezuelan leaders associated with Maduro this week. Mexico, Colombia and Panama followed with sanctions of their own against the same individuals, and Colombia said it won’t recognize Sunday’s vote results. The Organization of American States deems the vote illegal.

Trump warned he would take further “strong and swift economic action” against Maduro after the vote, though his administration hasn’t elaborated beyond saying all options are on the table.

Venezuela’s ministry of communication did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the vote.

Many areas of Caracas were brought to a standstill Wednesday and Thursday after the opposition called for a 48-hour strike. Most of the city’s main arteries were blocked and the usual traffic congestion was nowhere to be seen. In contrast, many pro-government neighborhoods continued with business as usual.

Venezuelan paramedic Johann Paredes has been in the thick of the protests, treating both injured protesters and national guardsmen.

Paredes lacks gauze and gloves to treat injuries on the front lines. He gets supplies only from random donations and nongovernmental organizations. He uses a makeshift spray bottle to squirt an anti-acid liquid into people’s mouths to ease the burning sensation of tear gas.

The backdrop to the vote is Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, triggered by a crippling economic collapse that has caused extreme shortages of food and medicine.

Volunteer medic Genesis Franceshi said Sunday she is anxious and tired by the street battles.

“It’s difficult but it’s our work,” she said, describing 12-hour shifts. “The weariness, the hours we endure in the street. … We don’t have a a consistent food supply so we eat what we can to provide care.”

On July 16, more than 7 million Venezuelans cast ballots in an unofficial vote against Maduro’s Constituent Assembly. Maduro ignored the results of the vote, which was organized by opposition leaders.

CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Natalie Gallón and Julia Jones contributed to this report.

By Joe Sterling, Flora Charner and Patrick Gillespie