Aug 18, 2:13 PM EDT

Pro-government assembly in Venezuela takes congress' powers

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AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's pro-government constitutional assembly took over the powers of the opposition-led congress Friday, dramatically escalating a standoff between President Nicolas Maduro and his political foes.

The move triggered further international condemnation from the dozens of countries that have already criticized the creation of the all-powerful assembly as an undemocratic power grab by Maduro.

Assembly delegates approved a decree giving them the authority to pass legislation to guarantee the peace, sovereignty and economic well-being of Venezuelans in the face of what they consider relentless machinations and sabotage by Maduro's opponents.

While the decree does not explicitly dissolve congress or impede lawmakers from meeting, it virtually nullifies the already-enfeebled powers of the body.

"We will teach them a historic lesson," constitutional assembly President Delcy Rodriguez said as delegates broke into loud applause while voting unanimously for the measure.

Government opponents have warned that the assembly would move to squash dissent following an election for its members last month that was boycotted by the opposition and criticized by many foreign governments.

In recent days Venezuelans have watched as a steady parade of top officials, including Maduro, kneeled before the assembly charged with rewriting the 1999 constitution and recognized it as the country's supreme authority.

Three congressional leaders of congress were summoned to do the same Friday. But in a public letter, all 109 opposition lawmakers refused to subordinate themselves to a body they consider illegitimate and a betrayal of the 14 million voters who took part in 2015 parliamentary elections that gave Maduro's critics their first toehold on power in almost two decades of socialist rule.

"One day when we are free in the future, we will remember proudly the battles today that unite us and will be the foundation for the democracy we will build together," the politicians, led by congressional President Julio Borges, said in the letter.

Since convening two weeks ago, the constitutional assembly has removed the nation's outspoken chief prosecutor, ordered the arrest of her husband on charges of corruption and declared itself superior to all other branches of government. At the same time, the pro-government supreme court has ordered the arrest of several opposition mayors.

Reaction to Friday's move was swift.

One opposition leader compared what he considers the trampling of Venezuela's constitution to this week's attack on pedestrians in Barcelona, while Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, denounced the "fraudulent dissolving" of congress as another step in Maduro's ongoing "coup."

The government accuses opposition leaders behind months of anti-government protests of conspiring with the United States to violently oust Maduro. Also on the agenda in Friday's session was a debate over a proposed law targeting opposition leaders for promoting months of protests that left more than 120 people dead and hundreds more injured or jailed.

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