USA sanctions Venezuelan officials to pressure Maduro

Airline Avianca announces in a press release that it will no longer fly to Venezuela

The Treasury Department on Wednesday levied onerous financial sanctions on several current and former officials in Venezuela on the eve of Sunday's National Constituent Assembly.

The opposition, emboldened by an unofficial referendum against Maduro last week, is boycotting the election, which they say is rigged in Maduro's favor.

Prosecutors said a 30-year-old man was killed Wednesday in the western province of Merida, and a 14-year-old boy was killed in Caracas' Petare neighborhood, a sprawling slum in the eastern end of the city. "If you look at the violence it would appear that this time around, most of it is coming from pro-government forces, either National Guard and police or "colectivos" that are aligned with the government".

A defiant Maduro hit back late on Wednesday, holding a campaign style rally where he presented some of those hit by U.S. sanctions with replicas of a sword belonging to Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

The power struggle between Venezuela's President, Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition claimed another victim, days ahead of a vote anticipated to plunge the country further into chaos.

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The two killings pushed to the century mark the human toll of a political crisis that has brought the oil-rich South American country nearly four months of near-daily protests, thousands of injuries and arrests and a two-day general strike that shuttered businesses nationwide this week.

The U.S. officials said the "designated" individuals were accused of supporting Maduro's crackdown, harming democratic institutions or victimizing the Venezuelan people through corruption, and that additional "bad actors" could be sanctioned later. "For us, it's a recognition of morality, loyalty to the nation, and civic honesty".

The United States made a decision to target individuals for alleged human rights abuses, undermining democracy and corruption, while sparing the country for now from broader financial or "sectoral" sanctions against its vital oil industry - though such actions, the officials told Reuters, are still under consideration.

The opposition-led National Assembly, meanwhile, has challenged the government by appointing 33 supreme court judges to rival ones loyal to Maduro.

Opposition leaders say Maduro intends to assume more authoritarian powers once a constitutional assembly acceptable to him is chosen. They warn the new constitution will formalize a Maduro dictatorship and undermine democracy.

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"It's the only way to show we are not with Maduro". "If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions".

The opposition has said that Sunday's vote, which it is boycotting, is a sham created to give Maduro dictatorial powers.

Thirteen countries in the 35-member Organisation of American States, a regional political bloc, urged Maduro to suspend Sunday's election.

Colombia's largest airline Avianca said today that it will cease flying to and from Venezuela beginning on August 16. It cited security concerns for the move. "To be safe, we prefer to cross".

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