At least four people have died following overnight clashes ahead of rival protests today in Venezuela by supporters and opponents of President Nicolás Maduro, police and a non-governmental organisation said.
A 16-year-old was among the dead, having suffered "a firearm injury during a demonstration" in the capital Caracas, the Social Conflict Observatory said.
Police said the other three deaths occurred during looting in Bolívar City in the southeastern Bolívar state that borders Brazil.
In a symbolic sign of the anger on display, a statue of Venezuela's iconic socialist revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, Maduro's predecessor in office, was torched by dozens of protesters in the town of San Felix, Bolívar state. Photos and videos shared on social media showed the statue, which was vandalised last year, engulfed in flames.
Tensions have been running high in the country since Monday when a group of soldiers took over a command post in the north of the capital and rose up against Maduro, publishing a video calling on people to come out into the streets in support. The mutineers were quickly overpowered by police and the Armed Forces, with 27 people arrested.
But the brazen move sparked at least 30 small protests around Caracas, according to the Social Conflict Observatory, with the police firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly announced today's protest action earlier this month as the legislature's president Juan Guaidó aims to rally support behind his attempt to chase Maduro from power and set up a transitional government ahead of new elections.
The government responded by announcing its own pro-Maduro demonstration on what is a hugely significant date in Venezuela since it was on January 23, 1958 that the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez fell.
Opposition to Maduro's rule has been stepped up since the former bus driver was sworn in for a second term of office two weeks ago.
The election he won in May was boycotted by the opposition and branded a fraud by the European Union, United States and numerous Latin American countries.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rightstoday warned Maduro today that social protest and freedom of expression are "fundamental values" in any democratic society. The human rights body of the Organisation of American States says repression of demonstrations through excessive use of force may be a grave violation to fundamental rights.
The Venezuelan leader was specifically reacting to comments by US Vice-President Mike Pence, who posted a video on Twitter branding Maduro "a dictator with no legitimate claim to power."
Referring to Wednesday's planned opposition rally, Pence added: "As the good people of Venezuela make your voices heard tomorrow, on behalf of the American people, we say: estamos con ustedes. We are with you."
Maduro responded during a radio and TV broadcast that "what the government of the United States did through Vice-President Mike Pence, was to give orders to carry out a coup from the fascist state... which is unparalleled in the history of relations between the United States and Venezuela in 200 years."
He ordered Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza to begin "a total revision of relations" with Washington, which has already sanctioned top Venezuelan regime figures.
With Maduro's government ominously predicting there would be violence against opposition protesters, US Senator Marco Rubio warned Venezuela's intelligence service to "reconsider the plan they have before it's too late."
"You are about to cross a line [and] trigger a response that believe me you are not prepared to face," the Florida Republican said on Twitter.
Rubio urged prayers for "the thousands of Venezuelans who will face danger [and] difficulty in the hours ahead. May God give them strength. And may he change the hearts of military leaders so that they protect not repress their fellow countrymen."
The Organisation of American States (OAS), which has declared Maduro's new term illegitimate, plans to hold an extraordinary session on Thursday to discuss "recent events in Venezuela."
"Yankee go home! We won't let them interfere in the affairs of the homeland," Maduro's Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez said in televised remarks, while Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez accused Pence of having ordered "terrorists" to carry out acts of violence during Wednesday's protest.