The Latest: Man slain at protest in western Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The latest on Venezuela, where a two-day national strike has been called beginning Wednesday to protest President Nicolas Maduro's plans to rewrite the country's constitution (all times local):

3:50 p.m.

Venezuela's chief prosecutor says a 30-year-old man has been killed in a protest in a western town, pushing the official toll to least 98 dead in nearly four months of unrest.

The prosecutor's office says Rafael Antonio Vergara was slain in the town of Ejido, outside the city of Merida, without offering further details.

The killing Wednesday came on the first of a two-day general strike called by opponents of President Nicolas Maduro. They are against his attempt to rewrite the constitution through a constituent assembly whose members are set to be chosen Sunday in an election.

The president argues that a new constitution will offer the South American nation a way out of its deep political and economic crisis. His opponents see it as a maneuver to further consolidate his already considerable executive power, and they are boycotting the vote.


1:50 p.m.

The Trump administration has hit Venezuela with new sanctions targeting 13 current or former top officials in President Nicolas Maduro's government.

It is also threatening more penalties if he goes through with a controversial plan to rewrite the beleaguered country's constitution, with an election scheduled Sunday to elect delegates to a special assembly charged with drafting a new charter.

The sanctions target senior Venezuelan officials that the U.S. says are promoting that vote or undermining democracy, along with five others implicated in violence or repression amid the country's political crisis.

They freeze any assets the individuals have in the United States and bar Americans from doing business with them.

Among those hit by the sanctions announced Wednesday are Tibisay Lucena Ramirez, the president of the National Electoral Council and president of Venezuela's National Board of Elections; Elias Jose Jaua Milano, Minister of Education and head of the Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly; Tarek William Saab Halabi, the president of Venezuela's Republican Moral Council; and Maria Iris Varela Rangel, a Member of Venezuela's Presidential Commission for the Constituent Assembly.


1:30 p.m.

Colombia's flagship airline is suspending all flights to neighboring Venezuela, citing security concerns.

Avianca announced Wednesday it is halting service to the struggling South American nation because of changes needed to improve airport infrastructure and ensure international standards are met.

The airline operates two direct flights to Venezuela: One from Bogota, Colombia, and the other from Lima, Peru.

Avianca Executive President Hernan Rincon says he laments the decision, "but our obligation is to guarantee the safety of the operation."

A growing list of air carriers has suspended service to Venezuela as the country sinks further into economic and political ruin.

June saw the last United Airlines departure out of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.


1:20 p.m.

The United States and 12 other regional nations are urging Venezuela's president to suspend the election of a national assembly to rewrite the country's constitution amid political unrest.

The 13 nations presented a statement at an Organization of American States meeting Wednesday calling the constitutional process being pushed by Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro a "definitive dismantling" of democratic institutions.

The statement expresses concern over what it says is a "serious alteration of the democratic order, the worsening of the crisis and the increase of violence" in Venezuela.

The statement was issued by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the United States.


12:05 p.m.

U.S. officials say the Trump administration is poised to hit Venezuela with new sanctions amid widespread unrest ahead of weekend elections that would lead to a rewrite of the country's constitution.

The officials said the sanctions to be announced by the White House later Wednesday would target senior current and former government and military officials as well as some linked to Venezuela's state oil company.

The officials were not authorized to discuss the sanctions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The sanctions will include asset freezes and travel bans.

In a tweet, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said 13 people would be affected by the sanctions. Rubio has been a strong proponent of sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government and its crackdown on the opposition.

__ Contributed by Matthew Lee in Washington.


11:35 a.m.

The European Union's foreign policy chief is calling on Venezuelan authorities to de-escalate tensions ahead of Sunday's election of a constituent assembly tasked with overhauling the embattled nation's charter.

Federica Mogherini issued a statement Wednesday warning that the election "risks further polarizing the country and heightening the risk of confrontation."

Three days of protests are planned leading up to Sunday's vote, starting with a 48-hour general strike that began Wednesday and culminating Friday with a demonstration billed as a "takeover of Caracas."

Mogherini says the EU "encourages and stands ready to support in every way possible the creation of a regional 'group of friends,' accepted by the government and the opposition, to help the endeavors of political actors in Venezuela to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive solution to the crisis in the country."


10:10 a.m.

Cuba says it has no intention of trying to help mediate a solution to the political crisis rocking Venezuela. Instead it's voicing full support for the embattled government of President Nicolas Maduro, a key ideological and economic ally.

Speculation that Havana could play a role in potential international mediation had been sparked by a recent visit to the island by President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

Cuban Communist Party Second Secretary Jose Ramon Machado Ventura says "Cuba roundly rejects such insinuations and demands absolute respect for the sovereignty and self-determination" of Venezuela.

In his words: "Those who from the outside try to give lessons on democracy and human rights while encouraging coup-mongering violence and terrorism should take their hands off that nation."

Machado Ventura adds that it is up to the Venezuelan people and Maduro's government to overcome their challenges "without foreign meddling in their internal affairs."

He spoke Wednesday at a ceremony marking the anniversary of a failed barracks uprising that is considered the beginning of Fidel Castro's revolution.

Venezuelan opposition leaders have called a two-day general strike beginning Wednesday to protest Maduro's plans to rewrite the country's constitution.


8:15 a.m.

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has released his first direct message since his release on house arrest this month, calling on Venezuelans to support a 48-hour general strike against government plans to rewrite the constitution and appealing to the army not to crack down on protests.

In a 15-minute video recorded in his home and released overnight Wednesday, Lopez says President Nicolas Maduro's administration is seeking to annihilate democracy. He calls on Venezuelans "to stop this with peaceful resistance and deep commitment to our efforts."

He calls on the Venezuelan army not to deploy Sunday to protect the vote.

"We're on the brink of their trying to annihilate the republic that you swore to defend," he says. "I ask you not to be accomplices in the annihilation of the republic."

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