Hundreds of thousands have flooded the streets of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in rival marches for and against President Nicolas Maduro.
On Thursday, large crowds of Maduro’s opponents and opposition sympathizers dressed in white marched in the east of Caracas, demanding a referendum on removing the embattled head of state from power.
Jesus Torrealba, the leader of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable, described the gathering as the “biggest rally in recent decades” with “between 950,000 and 1.1 million people” taking part.
“This is a historic march. Today begins a definitive stage in this struggle,” Torrealba said.
A group of Venezuelan expatriates in Peru also held a vigil outside their country’s embassy in Lima to show their solidarity with opposition supporters rallying in Caracas.
In a counter-rally, thousands of Maduro’s backers in red t-shirts and caps gathered near Plaza Bolivar Square in central Caracas.
The demonstrators held placards and chanted slogans such as “the people are with you.”
“We are here at the call of our president, to defend the revolution,” said 37-year-old Carolina Aponte, a pro-Maduro demomstrator.
Hundreds of security forces were deployed to prevent scuffles between the two camps. No major clashes were reported during Thursday’s marches, which came to an end in the mid-afternoon.
Addressing thousands of his supporters at the rally in the capital, Maduro accused the opposition of stirring up trouble as part of a US-backed coup plot.
“Today we have defeated a coup d’etat,” said the president. “They have failed once again. The victory is ours.”
At an early counter-demonstration on Tuesday, Maduro had warned opposition leaders that they could end up behind bars if they incited violence during the September 1 rally.
“Whoever is involved in the coup, whoever calls for violence has to go to jail. Cry or scream, they will go to jail, fascists,” he told a crowd of his supporters on Tuesday.
Maduro also accused the United States of plotting against leftist governments in Latin America.
The latest protest rallies come as electoral authorities have indicated it was too late to organize a recall vote this year — infuriating the opposition, which is trying to hold a referendum before January 10, four years into the president’s six-year term.
In the event of a successful recall vote, the power would be passed to Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz.
Since 2014, Venezuela has been grappling with protests against Maduro who is under fire by his critics for his handling of the economy.
The opposition blames Maduro’s Socialist government for the triple-digit inflation as well as shortages of food, medicine and basic goods that have triggered violence and looting.
The president, however, blames the problems on an “economic war” waged by the opposition with a helping hand from Washington aimed at bringing about a coup d’état in the oil-rich country.