Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro yesterday announced plans to expand the number of civilians involved in armed militias as tensions in the crisis-wracked South American nation continued to rise.

Maduro said he hopes to expand the number of civilians involved in the Bolivarian militias created by the late Hugo Chavez to 500,000, up from the current 100,000, and provide each member with a gun.

Speaking to thousands of militia members dressed in beige uniforms gathered in front of the presidential palace to mark the force's seventh anniversary, Maduro said it is time for Venezuelans to decide if they are "with the homeland" or against it. "Now is not the time to hesitate," he said.

The announcement came as Maduro's opponents were gearing up for a rally today that they said would be the largest yet to press for elections and a host of other demands. Thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets since the Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of its last vestiges of power nearly three weeks ago, a decision it later reversed. The Maduro Government vowed to hold a counter rally in defence of the socialist movement started by Chavez.

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Chavez created the civilian militias with the goal of training 1 million Venezuelans to assist the armed forces in the defence of his revolution from external and domestic attacks. Maduro told the militia that vision remains relevant as Venezuela continues to face "imperialist aggression". "A gun for every militiaman!" he cried.

Maduro's Government claims foreign-backed opposition leaders are fomenting violence in an attempt to remove him from power.

- AP