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Fraud occurred in gathering recall petition signatures, Venezuela's courts ruled

Opposition groups promise street protests will be held next Wednesday

CNN  — 

A drive to hold a recall referendum on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been halted, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council announced in a statement.

Federal courts ruled Thursday that multiple cases of voter identity fraud occurred over the summer as the first round of signatures was being gathered to request the referendum.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

As a result, the electoral council stopped the second round of signature-gathering scheduled to take place October 26-28. If 20% of the voting population had signed petitions during that time, a recall election could have been ordered.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said Friday, “Yesterday in Venezuela there was a coup d’état. There is no other way to call it. What we feared so much was hatched.”

“The time has come to defend Venezuela’s constitution,” he said at a news conference, adding that “next Wednesday, we’re going to take Venezuela from end to end.” He didn’t specify what might happen beyond protests.

The opposition coalition, Unidad Venezuela, tweeted of upcoming protests on October 26, saying it these will not be “like anything other march.” Another tweet said: “Yesterday the Government staged a coup to all Venezuelans, that decision deepened the crisis in the country.”

Maduro, heir to the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, has vowed that efforts to remove him from office won’t succeed.

The country is battling an economic crisis, with many citizens lacking access to enough food and basic health care.

Protests over the government have been raging for months, culminating in the recall effort. Many people are fed up with the widespread shortages of basic goods and medical supplies, factory shutdowns and blackouts.

Opposition groups collected signatures of 1% of the voting population during the first petition drive last summer. That was enough to trigger the second round.

Even as she announced the results of the first round, Venezuela’s top election official called for an investigation into irregularities in the list of signatures, saying were at least 1,326 instances of voter identity fraud.

CNN’s Euan McKirdy and Rafael Romo contributed to this report.