Reuters International

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) attends a pro-government gathering in Caracas, Venezuela August 30, 2016. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

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By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela has arrested several opposition activists accused of plotting violence during an anti-government rally scheduled for Thursday, President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday, and opposition leaders slammed the arrests as intimidation.

The opposition is calling on sympathizers from across the country to march in the capital of Caracas to push for a recall referendum against Maduro, who calls the rally a plot to stir up violence and set the stage for a coup.

The upcoming march follows months of tensions between Maduro and the opposition-controlled legislature, exacerbated by triple-digit inflation, Soviet-style product shortages and a severe economic recession.

"We must win the battle against the coup - before, during, and after the dates announced by these fascists," Maduro said in a televised broadcast. "We've captured a group of people carrying important equipment, C4 explosives. We're trying to capture a number of them in real time."

Maduro called opposition party Popular Will "the party of violence that is mixed up in the coup of Sept. 1." He accused opposition leaders of seeking to stage a putsch similar to one that briefly toppled late socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2002.

Intelligence agents on Tuesday raided Popular Will's offices and arrested long-time street activist Carlos Melo, opposition parties said. Popular Will activist Yon Goicoechea was arrested on Monday on charges of carrying explosives.

Another Popular Will leader, jailed former mayor Daniel Ceballos, was transferred to prison from house arrest on Saturday. He was accused of trying to escape his home to plot violence during the march.

Opposition leaders have accused elections authorities of intentionally stalling the recall vote. Maduro's approval rating in July fell to a nine-month low of 21 percent, according to pollster Datanalisis.

"We denounce the pathetic way in which the government is seeking to demobilize and intimidate the democratic leadership," said Jesus Torrealba, leader of the Democratic Unity coalition.

Opposition sympathizers have been walking from far-flung corners of the country to join the Caracas march.Popular Will was founded by Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor jailed for leading the 2014 anti-government protests. The opposition describes him as a political prisoner, and rights groups across the world have pressured Venezuela to release him.

The issue of jailed opposition leaders helped scuttle a brief 2015 rapprochement between Venezuela and the United States, its main ideological adversary.

Maduro insists his government does not hold political prisoners and described Lopez as a dangerous criminal.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by David Gregorio)

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