CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's socialist government said on Wednesday it has collected more than three million signatures asking U.S. President Barack Obama to repeal measures declaring the South American country a security threat.
In the worst flare-up between the ideological enemies since Nicolas Maduro took power in 2013, Washington earlier this month declared a "national emergency" over "the unusual and extraordinary threat" from Venezuela and sanctioned seven officials over allegations of rights abuses and corruption.
In response, Maduro has accused Washington of planning to invade Venezuela and public squares around the nation of 29 million people have become centers for a nationalist petition drive by the ruling Socialist Party.
The opposition has complained that Venezuelans, especially state employees, are being coerced to sign.
"According to our projections, we will collect 10 million signatures to say 'Obama: repeal the executive order,'" said Jorge Rodriguez, a senior Socialist Party official, confirming that three million people had signed in two weeks.
Maduro hopes to deliver the signatures to Obama in person at the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama next month.
Although U.S. officials say the measures are meant only to punish the seven officials, with no wider agenda, Venezuelan allies from Russia to Argentina have sent messages of support and South American bloc UNASUR has also condemned U.S. "interference."
The opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition said on Wednesday that Venezuelans abroad were receiving communications from their embassies and consulates inviting them to sign.
"Given past cases in which those lists were used for political blackmail, the Venezuelan community abroad rightly rejects this initiative that might become a mechanism of improper pressure and retaliation," it said.
Signatories to the petition are asked to give their identification and telephone numbers.
Hardline opposition party Popular Will accused the Education Ministry of ordering teachers of schools in eastern Monagas state to pressure students to write protest letters to Obama.
"The order to write these letters is a clear attempt to indoctrinate children," it said in a statement.
Reuters could not independently verify the complaint, and there was no response from authorities.
A service provider who visited the Caracas headquarters of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) this week said he was initially barred from entering until he had signed the petition on a table in front of the building. However, after contacting an executive inside, he was eventually allowed in without signing.
The government plans to step up its signature drive "house-by-house" over the weekend.
Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Grebler