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Venezuelan opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles shows a copy of the form to collect signatures to begin the process of seeking a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

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By Corina Pons and Eyanir Chinea

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition launched a signature drive on Wednesday seeking a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro as sporadic looting and protests over the economic crisis were reported.

The Democratic Unity coalition gathered supporters in public spaces around the country to start collecting the 1 percent of voters' signatures, nearly 200,000, needed to trigger the next phase towards a possible recall referendum.

Maduro, 53, who succeeded his late mentor Hugo Chavez, has seen his popularity plummet due to a brutal recession, triple-digit inflation, widespread shortages and long lines at shops.

Small anti-Maduro protests and looting incidents have been taking place in various cities this week, some triggered by increasing power cuts due to energy shortages.

In Venezuela's second city Maracaibo, in the oil-producing western state of Zulia, authorities reported at least 30 small protests on Tuesday night, including looting of various shops and pharmacies and some vehicles burned.

Half a dozen people were arrested.

"We totally condemn the violence," Zulia governor Francisco Arias said, calling on parents to control protesting youths.

"END THIS DISASTER"

Small demonstrations in other cities, including Puerto Ordaz and Maracay, took place early on Wednesday, witnesses said, with people burning garbage in the street and some looting.

If the referendum process drags into 2017, the vice president would take over should Maduro be removed, rather than there being a new election. Opponents fear the election board is abetting that, to deny them a chance of taking power in the OPEC nation at the half-way stage of Maduro's 2013-2019 term.

Venezuela's opposition won control of the National Assembly in December, due to public ire over the economy, and has declared its aim to remove Maduro this year.

"I voted for Chavez and I never thought this tragedy would happen," said caretaker Isadora Chavez, 56, who lined up for an hour behind 100 others outside one of six tents at a signature point in Caracas. "I was wrong; never again!"

To trigger a referendum, after obtaining the 1 percent of voters' signatures, the opposition must then collect another 20 percent, or 4 million signatures, before a vote could be held.

"I'm signing to end this disaster. They've destroyed the country," said shop owner Jhony Valero, 57, who also lined up to sign in Caracas.

Maduro has sworn he will not be forced out and accuses the opposition of seeking a coup against him to destroy socialism in the South American country of 30 million people.

Risk consultancy Eurasia forecast authorities would block a referendum this year. "The only catalyst for regime change this year is a potential social explosion."

(Additional reporting by German Dam in Puerto Ordaz, Manuel Hernandez in Maracaibo, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alistair Bell, Toni Reinhold)

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