Venezuelan opposition leaders urged followers to defy a government ban on protests and stage rallies across the nation on Friday.

The development came as deadly clashes threatened to escalate in the lead-up to a controversial constitutional referendum at the weekend.

The total number of people killed during the months of protests was more than 100.

The ruling government of socialist President Nicolas Maduro has prohibited demonstrations from Friday to Tuesday, saying the ban was necessary to protect the integrity of the vote.

But opposition alliance Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) said it would ignore the ban and encourage its supporters to take to the streets and “take Venezuela.’’

The opposition’s key demands include Maduro leaving power, the cancelling of constitutional reforms and fresh elections.

Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, has been ruled by socialist governments since 1999, and is on the brink of collapse amid severe food and medicine shortages and rampant violence.

There are fears that the referendum on Sunday to elect members of a new Constituent Assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution could plunge the country into new depths of uncertainty.

The opposition has declined to put up candidates and encouraged citizens to boycott the election, arguing that the way the assembly has been set up is skewed in Maduro’s favour.

The United States ordered the departure of all diplomat family members from its embassy in Caracas, with State Department officials citing an “unpredictable’’ political and security situation.

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