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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C), his wife Cilia Flores (centre L) and National Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez (centre R), arrive for a session of the assembly at Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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By Hugh Bronstein and Diego Oré

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro recognised the Socialist Party-dominated constituent assembly as the country's most powerful institution on Thursday in his first appearance at the highly criticized legislative body that was inaugurated six days ago.

"As head of state I subordinate myself to the powers of this constituent assembly," he said during his address.

"I come to recognise its plenipotentiary powers, sovereign, original and magnificent," he said.

The recent election of the 545-member assembly drew international condemnation for usurping the authority of Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress. Critics have said the election cast aside any remaining checks on Maduro's power.

Maduro has said the assembly is the country's only chance at securing peace and prosperity after four months of unrest and anti-government protests that have left more than 120 people dead.

In an address that repeatedly brought assembly members to their feet in applause, Maduro called for a new governance framework for Venezuela, aimed at "perfecting the constitution of 1999."

"Madam president," he said to assembly chief and long-time Maduro loyalist Delcy Rodriguez, "I am entirely at your service."

In its first working session on Aug. 5, the assembly confirmed opposition fears that it would seek to strengthen Maduro's grip on power by firing his main critic within the ruling socialist coalition, chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega. She has been ordered to stand trial.

Ortega accused Maduro of human rights abuses after his loyalist Supreme Court started nullifying laws passed by Congress earlier this year. Now in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house, Ortega told Reuters earlier on Thursday that she feared for her life.

Maduro's human rights ombudsman, Tarek Saab, was chosen to replace Ortega after slamming her for what he called "complicity and inaction" in the face of bloodshed during the protests. The opposition has accused Saab of turning a blind eye to government abuses.

"This assembly had a violent birth," Maduro said during Thursday's address. He drew a rousing ovation when he promised that violent anti-government protesters would be jailed.

The opposition boycotted the July 30 election of the assembly and called for an early presidential vote that it was sure Maduro would lose for having presided over a severe economic recession that has been accompanied by shortages of food and medicine.

(Additional reporting by Corina Pons; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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Reuters