CARACAS Venezuela's opposition lawmakers, some carrying injuries from this week's protests, on Wednesday sought the dismissal of Supreme Court judges whom they accuse of propping up a socialist dictatorship.
Newly militant opposition leaders also announced another round of demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro for Thursday, despite chaos and violence in Caracas on Tuesday that left 20 injured and 18 arrested.
The opposition, which won control of the National Assembly in late 2015, accuses Maduro of wrecking the South American nation's economy and squashing democracy.
Maduro says his foes are seeking a coup with the help of Washington and compliant foreign media.
The opposition's main demand now is to bring forward the next presidential election scheduled for the end of 2018.
But there is no sign authorities will concede, analysts and diplomats say, unless foreign pressure ramps up considerably or Venezuela's powerful military sways the equation.
The political drama is playing out against the backdrop of a deep economic crisis, with Venezuelans suffering a fourth year of recession, widespread shortages of basic foods and medicines, the world's worst inflation, and long lines at supermarkets.
Having been impeded from reaching the National Assembly on Tuesday, lawmakers headed to the building in downtown Caracas from dawn on Wednesday, some still nursing head wounds or bandaged arms from clashes in recent days.
"We are going to keep fighting for change, opposing repression and dictatorship," lawmaker Juan Requesens, who had a gash on his head, said at 6:30 a.m. while en route to the session.
Often at the forefront of provocative demonstrations, Requesens received more than 50 stitches after being hit by a stone when pro-government supporters confronted protesters at the public ombudsman's office earlier this week.
ARRESTS AND INJURIES
The Caracas-based Penal Forum rights group said 18 people were still behind bars on Wednesday after detentions around the country, but mostly in Caracas. At least 20 people were injured on Tuesday, its head, Alfredo Romero, told Reuters.
There was particular outcry over a musician caught and slapped by police with riot shields while apparently on his way to practise, according to a video of the incident. State ombudsman Tarek Saab called for a probe into the "brutal aggression."
The head of the hemispheric Organization of American States and global rights group Amnesty International both condemned Venezuela for excessive repression.
But Interior Minister Nestor Reverol denied that, calling instead for one opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, to be prosecuted for blocking streets, including impeding an ambulance.
"The exemplary behaviour, capacity and training of our citizens' security organs prevented the unpredictable consequences of these terrorist groups," Reverol added.
The oil-producing nation's political standoff took a new twist last week when the Supreme Court ruled that it was taking over the legislature's functions.
That touched off an international outcry, and the tribunal quickly scrubbed the offending clauses.
But dozens of previous rulings overturning National Assembly measures have left it powerless anyway, and opposition leaders say recent events have shown the world Maduro's autocratic face.
Lawmakers passed one motion on Wednesday denouncing the "rupture" of Venezuela's constitution and another asking for the removal of Supreme Court judges.
But that would be merely symbolic since congress requires the support of other institutions, which are behind Maduro, to dismiss the judges.
"Stop being ridiculous; you're carrying out a parliamentary 'coup,'" said Socialist Party lawmaker Hector Rodriguez, accusing opposition leaders of caring less about Venezuelans' problems than their own competing presidential ambitions.
(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alistair Bell and Lisa Von Ahn)