Venezuela prosecutor challenges crisis reform plan

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Caracas (AFP)

Venezuela's attorney general on Thursday mounted a fresh legal challenge against President Nicolas Maduro's efforts to rewrite the constitution in a deadly political crisis.

"This appeal that I am attempting is to defend popular sovereignty, the constitution and participatory democracy," the attorney, Luisa Ortega, told reporters.

She is the most high profile official to defy Maduro in the crisis. Maduro retains the public backing of the military, however.

Clashes at daily protests by demonstrators calling for Maduro to quit over an economic crisis have left 66 people dead since April 1, prosecutors say.

In response to the protests, Maduro has launched moves to reform the constitution, but his opponents say that is a ploy to cling to power.

The Venezuelan president warned Thursday of a "conspiracy of traitors" against his constitutional reform efforts, calling on "the military civic union to defeat in the street the conspiracy, the plot and the coup that can be expected."

Ortega's appeal argues that the means by which Maduro proposes to form a constitutional assembly to draft the reform are themselves unconstitutional.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said: "I applaud the fact that the prosecutor is acting constitutionally," while Freddy Guevara, a senior opposition lawmaker, called on "all of Venezuela to join the appeal".

The Supreme Court rejected an earlier challenge by Ortega. The opposition says the court is packed with Maduro's allies.

Maduro also said Thursday he would take legal action against opposition leaders who blame the government for the violence.

"I have appointed a group of lawyers to file a lawsuit and make a historical trial with all these right-wing leaders who accuse and accuse, when they are the ones who generate violence," Maduro said during a function with education workers in Caracas.

Venezuelan Catholic church leaders were additionally received in the Vatican on Thursday by Pope Francis.

Their leader Diego Padron told reporters afterwards that Francis was following the crisis and expressed "full support" to them in trying to help resolve it.

Vatican-backed talks between Maduro's government and the opposition broke down in