Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Caracas on Thursday to demand a vote on recalling Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The demonstrators blocked main streets in the capital in what organizers billed as the "Taking of Caracas." There were reports that security forces used tear gas against protesters immediately after the demonstration began.
"Thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets for freedom," said Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
David Smolansky, an opposition mayor of the El Hatillo district of the city, said: "We demand a referendum in the year 2016 so that we can get back our freedom and the rule of law."
The protest was called by the Roundtable for Democratic Unity opposition coalition to demand action on scheduling a recall referendum, which has languished with Venezuela's elections authority.
The opposition accuses the National Electoral Council of deliberately stalling the process to push a possible vote past a deadline that could lead to new elections, ensuring power would remain in ruling Socialist hands no matter the vote's outcome. The council set the end of October for the second round of signature collection for the referendum against Maduro.
The mass protest comes with Venezuela mired in a severe economic crisis, with many people struggling to buy food and obtain medicine. This year, the economy is expected to shrink by 10 per cent while inflation balloons over 700 per cent, the International Monetary Fund forecasts.
Thousands of Maduro supporters were on the streets Thursday, too. Amid concern that clashes could occur, the government deployed 10,000 extra security forces in Caracas.
"We don't want violence to win out. We are for peace and rationality," said Hector Rodriguez, head of the socialist faction.
The opposition coalition United Democracy Roundtable (MUD) reported that security forces fired tear gas at demonstrators in Caracas. Local media quoted witnesses as saying that security forces blocked streets and set up control points, causing traffic jams.
The union representing journalists said several foreign media representatives who wanted to report on the demonstration from inside Venezuela were refused entry to the country.
Maduro accused the opposition of inciting violence, and said the president of parliament, Henry Ramos Allup, had promoted "hate, retaliation, fascism and violence."
Maduro warned that these were things his government would not tolerate, and said he would petition the country's highest court to lift the immunity of members of parliament in the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Ramos Allup said the demonstration showed Venezuelans wanted the government to acknowledge their right to recall Maduro.
A series of violent anti-government protests in 2014 left dozens dead, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.