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People attend a session of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly to appoint new magistrates of the Supreme Court in Caracas, Venezuela, July 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino


By Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition-led congress said on Friday it will appoint 13 alternative judges to the country's Supreme Court, whose current pro-government members have been a bedrock of support for leftist President Nicolas Maduro.

While widely seen as symbolic, the move raises the spectre of the development of a parallel state. The top court has warned that the naming of the alternate judges is illegal, and they could be jailed.

"The Supreme Court's constitutional chamber warns those who undertake the unconstitutional pretence of naming magistrates will face the consequences of usurpation of functions," the Supreme Court said in a statement late on Thursday.

Undeterred, opposition lawmakers were planning to swear in the new judges shortly in a public plaza to combat what they say is oil-rich Venezuela's slide into dictatorship under Maduro.

"Justice is coming," said opposition legislator Jesus Abreu on Twitter. "We will name the true magistrates of democracy in Venezuela."

Critics hold that the current Supreme Court justices were named illegally by Maduro, rushed in before the opposition took over the legislature in January 2016.

"They're pirate magistrates named on the fly," said opposition legislator Juan Requesens as he made his way to the session.

Even so, the government will not allow the congressionally appointed judges to unseat those already sitting on the Supreme Court.

Rather, the move is seen as part of the opposition coalition campaign to ramp up pressure on unpopular Maduro after nearly four months of violent street protests, an unofficial plebiscite against him last weekend and a national strike on Thursday.

Apart from the plan to name new judges, the opposition held an unofficial referendum on Sunday in which the opposition said some 7.5 million people voted against the government.

Two young men died in unrest related to the Thursday's strike, according to authorities.

Venezuela's second-largest city, Maracaibo, suffered looting, fires and four additional deaths during the stoppage, according to local reports that have not been confirmed by authorities. Over 360 people were arrested, rights group Penal Forum said.

The opposition is vying to stop Maduro's plan to on July 30 create a controversial super-legislature with powers to rewrite the constitution and supersede other institutions.

Maduro also faces widespread pressure from abroad to abort the assembly, including from U.S. President Donald Trump who said on Monday he would take "strong and swift economic actions" if the Venezuelan leader went ahead with his plans.

(Additional reporting by Lenin Danieri in Maracaibo; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and W Simon)

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