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As Venezuelan death toll rises, President Nicolas Maduro bans protests before vote to rewrite the constitution

The official death toll from four months of protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro rose to 106 Thursday as tensions rose ahead of Sunday's controversial election of assembly members charged with writing a new constitution. Three new fatalities came as Maduro declared all protests from Friday through Sunday to be illegal.

"All meetings, public protests and concentrations of persons in the national territory are prohibited that could disturb or affect the electoral process," the interior minister, Nestor Reverol, said in a televised speech. "Whoever organizes or instigates activities designed to upset the electoral process or the social life of the country will be sent to prison for five to 10 years."

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Observers doubted that opponents to the Maduro government will heed the order. Some 4,000 protesters have been arrested since the wave of demonstrations began, despite similar bans.

A general nationwide strike called Wednesday for 48 hours appeared to be holding in the capital, Caracas, and other cities across the country. In neighborhoods rich and poor across Caracas, protesters have erected barricades as a gesture of protest against Sunday's vote.

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And the Democratic Unity coalition of political parties was planning to go ahead with a mass protest Friday.

Anticipating more unrest, the U.S. government ordered relatives of American diplomats to leave the capital Thursday and issued a travel warning urging U.S. citizens not to visit the country, the Associated Press reported.

Venezuelan opposition leaders say the vote is a ruse by Maduro to perpetuate himself in power and ensure his loyalists take control of the National Assembly from the opposition. Maduro's approval ratings in recent polls have dropped to 20%.

Despite condemnation by the Organization of American States and various international leaders, Maduro has shown no indication of calling off the balloting.

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"We have no other option, between winning or dying," he told a campaign gathering Thursday in downtown Caracas. "The oligarchies of the world have reacted because they fear a new Venezuelan Constitution. Who do we obey? In Venezuela, the people govern."

A total of 13 current and former senior officials in Maduro's government were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department this week for their role in "undermining democratic processes and institutions" and for responsibility in the government's "rampant violence against opposition protesters."

Meanwhile, Colombian migration authorities report rising numbers of Venezuelans fleeing their country for at least temporary stays. More than 560,000 Venezuelans have applied for a "border mobility card" that allows them multiple entries, while more than 350,000 have moved to Colombia in the last year, according to the migration division of the foreign ministry.

In another sign of rising tensions, Colombia-based airline Avianca, which provides nearly half of all international flights in and out of Venezuela, announced Wednesday that it is indefinitely suspending flights, effective immediately.

Airline executives told reporters in Bogota that rising thefts of luggage, frequent airport power outages and "irregular" jet fuel quality at the Maiquetia international airport in Caracas were reasons for the stoppage. Flights will resume when and if "technical conditions and security improve," airline officials said.

Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.

UPDATES:

7 p.m.: This article was updated to include the U.S. government's travel warning and order for relatives of its diplomats to leave the capital.

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This article was originally published at 4:30 p.m.

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