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Aug 19, 2:06 PM EDT

Venezuela congress defies push to take over its powers


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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's congress met Saturday in defiance of what opposition leaders consider an autocratic push by allies of President Nicolas Maduro to usurp the legislature's powers.

Brian Naranjo, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, was among a group of foreign diplomats from countries including Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom who attended Saturday's special session to express solidarity with the increasingly cornered lawmakers.

Venezuela's ongoing political standoff took another dramatic turn Friday after the pro-government constitutional assembly approved a decree taking over congress' powers to pass legislation of vital importance to the crisis-wracked nation.

Lawmakers and several foreign governments decried the move as an attempt to dissolve congress, although Maduro's supporters insist lawmakers can continue to meet and have appealed for an agreement so the two bodies can coexist. Freddy Guevara, congress' vice president, compared the offer to that of a kidnapper allowing his captives to use the bathroom and said lawmakers would only be removed by force.

"They will have to kick us out with bullets," said Guevara, who tore up a copy of the edict while presiding over the special session. "But we will continue to defend this space the Venezuelan people gave us as long as we have the will and the means to do so."

Government opponents had warned that the all-powerful constitutional assembly would move to squash dissent following an election for its members last month that was boycotted by the opposition and criticized by many foreign governments as an illegitimate power grab.

In recent days Venezuelans have watched as a steady parade of top officials, including Maduro, kneeled before the assembly charged with rewriting the 1999 constitution and recognized it as the country's supreme authority.

But when leaders of congress were summoned to do the same on Friday they refused, saying they consider it a betrayal of the 14 million voters who took part in 2015 parliamentary elections that gave Maduro's critics their first toehold on power in almost two decades of socialist rule.

Guevara accused the government of being desperate to circumvent congress so it can raise badly needed cash by selling off what's left of Venezuela's vast oil and mineral wealth to allies like Russia and China.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to slap Venezuela with strong economic sanctions, and even if Washington doesn't follow through many economists believe a default on the nation's international bonds looks increasingly unavoidable.

At Saturday's session lawmakers announced they would open a probe into who was responsible for attempting to "dissolve" congress.

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