U.S. sanctions Venezuelan officials amid anti-Maduro protests

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"After more than 60 years of continuous service in Venezuela, at Avianca we regret that we had to arrive at this hard decision, but our responsibility is to guarantee the safety of operations", said Hernán Rincon, chief executive of Avianca.

Plenty of rural areas and working-class urban neighbourhoods were bustling, however, as the 48-hour strike call appeared less massively heeded than a one-day shutdown last week.

The opposition has boycotted the election and says convening the planned 545-seat Constituent Assembly would institutionalize autocracy in the country.

The order was issued ahead of a mass protest called for tomorrow by the opposition, which is trying to force Maduro to scrap the election which will select a body tasked with drafting a new constitution for the crisis-hit country.

That added to the previously announced deaths of a 23-year-old man and a 30-year-old man killed in western Merida state and a 16-year-old boy killed in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Petare during clashes on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the United States slapped sanctions on 13 top officials of Venezuela's government for "undermining democracy", just as the Venezuelan opposition initiated a 48-hour general strike called for July 26 and 27, to demand that President Nicolas Maduro cease the July 30 election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.

Last week, Trump said Washington "will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles".

Meanwhile, Telesur, a television network sponsored by several Latin American governments including Venezuela, reported that thousands of Maduro supporters rallied across the country on Wednesday in support of the election. The existing Supreme Court has consistently backed Maduro and shot down all measures by the opposition-led National Assembly.

As The Two-Way's Camila Domonoske reported last week, "Venezuela is one of the largest foreign suppliers of oil to the US, accounting for almost 10 percent of total imports".

On July 17, Venezuela's opposition held a symbolic, general vote aimed at assessing overall public sentiments toward constitutional reforms proposed by the government.

He also called the sanctions "illegal, insolent and unprecedented".

Several other airlines have previously announced flight suspensions as currency controls imposed by Maduro's government have kept them from recovering costs or making a profit.

The opposition-led two-day strike is the latest effort to bring Venezuela to a standstill.

Also on the list are Venezuelan Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, national police director Carlos Alfredo Perez Ampueda and the vice president for finance of Venezuelan state oil giant PDVSA, Simon Zerpa.

"It is exclusively up to the Bolivarian people and government to overcome their difficulties without foreign intervention in their internal affairs", Machado Ventura said at an event in the northwestern city of Pinar del Rio. Rubio has been a strong proponent of sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government and its crackdown on the opposition.

He warned that anybody elected to the Constituent Assembly could also be slapped with USA sanctions.

Thirteen countries in the 35-member Organization of American States, a regional political bloc, have also urged Maduro to suspend the election.

Venezuela's economy is expected to shrink by 12% in 2017, with inflation at 720%, following a contraction of 18% in 2016, according to the latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund.

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