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CARACAS (Reuters) - Faced with mounting unrest, Venezuela's unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed on Tuesday to push ahead in July with the formation of a "constituent assembly" to rewrite the constitution before regional elections in December.
The South American OPEC member has been racked by strife, with 55 people killed during unrest in the past two months as public anger boiled over due to an economic meltdown that has left many Venezuelans scrabbling to afford three meals a day.
In an apparent bid to show the government was seeking a democratic solution, the head of the pro-government electoral council said voting for a controversial "constituent assembly" would be held in late July.
Regional gubernatorial elections, meant to have been held last year, would take place on Dec. 10, he said.
The opposition reacted with fury, convinced that these moves were Maduro's way of clinging to power.
Maduro's rivals fear that a new constituent assembly could rewrite rules or exclude opposition parties, making a sham of future elections that would likely vanquish the ruling socialists if the polls were free and fair.
"Today's decision is nothing more than an evil announcement meant to divide, distract, and confuse Venezuelans further," said Congress president Julio Borges, the opposition leader whose coalition is pushing for early elections, humanitarian aid to alleviate food and medicine shortages, and freedom for jailed activists.
"Today we've entered a new stage and that means more struggle and more street action," Borges said in a video on Tuesday night.
Riots and looting have raised risks that protests could spin out of control, given the widespread hunger, anger at Maduro and easy access to weapons in one of the world's most violent countries.
A Supreme Court magistrate decried the planned assembly, saying it was "not the solution to the crisis" and called on Maduro to "think carefully" to avoid more bloodshed.
Maduro was undaunted on Tuesday, presenting the proposed 540-member "constituent assembly" as a way to defuse anti-government protests, which he says are part of a U.S.-backed conspiracy to overthrow "21st Century socialism."
"Votes or bullets, what do the people want?" Maduro asked a crowd of red-shirted supporters waving Venezuelan flags at the Miraflores presidential palace.
"Let's go to elections now!" he said, before detailing how the new assembly will be partially elected by votes at a municipal level and partially by different groups, including workers, farmers, students, and indigenous people.
In a telling sign of internal dissent, Venezuela's state prosecutor warned that Maduro's plan for a grassroots congress risked deepening the crisis.
"Persistent and increasingly violent unrest will eventually prompt key stakeholders to abandon Maduro and negotiate a rapid transition that sets a timetable for new elections; the precise timing is impossible to predict, however," the Eurasia Group political consultancy said in a note to clients on Tuesday.
Enraged by the economic crisis and perceived lack of democratic solutions, some Venezuelans have taken out their ire by publicly shaming government officials or knocking down statues of Hugo Chavez, the late firebrand leftist leader who governed Venezuela from 1999 to 2013.
In the southeastern city of Puerto Ordaz, the president of a state-run company was "kidnapped," beaten up, and stripped naked by protesters, the government said.
In the lower middle-class Caracas neighbourhood of El Paraiso, masked men on Monday night shot up an apartment building and parked cars in what one resident, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals, said was retaliation for barricades set up nearby by opposition sympathizers.
Hundreds of people have been injured in the violence, around 2,700 arrested, with 1,000 still behind bars, and 335 tried in military tribunals, according to rights groups.
Looting has become more frequent, with many Venezuelans reduced to surviving on basics like yucca or corn flour.
In the usually calm peninsula of Paraguana, a food warehouse was looted on Sunday night. Some 17 people were arrested.
"The rumors started that they were going to sell something, so everyone came out and started to beat on the warehouse door, there were a lot of desperate people, kids and pregnant women," said a local resident, asking to remain anonymous.
"The neighbours knocked the door down, they destroyed everything, and made off with bags of flour and pasta. Police and National Guard had to ask for reinforcements, they threw tear gas and we heard shots."
Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa, Brian Ellsworth, Cristian Veron, Eyanir Chinea, Andreina Aponte, Diego Ore, Maria Ramirez, and Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Hay & Simon Cameron-Moore