'We cannot nor should we attack the people'

CARACAS: Bolstered by growing international support, Venezuela's self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido is increasing pressure on the rule of Nicolas Maduro by calling for new elections and street protests, and offering amnesty to members of the military who defect. The first major military officer to publicly switch his support to Guaido was Venezuela's military attache in Washington, Army Colonel Jose Luis Silva.

In a video posted online Saturday Silva urged "my brothers in the national armed forces" to recognize Guaido "as the only legitimate president," in accordance with Venezuela's constitution. He said the constitution does not allow the military "to attack our equals, our brothers… Don't forget comrade commander, captain, everyone in a command position -- we cannot nor should we attack the people." Guaido, who has galvanized a previously divided opposition, is offering an amnesty to anyone in the military who disavows Maduro, even suggesting amnesty for Maduro himself.

CARACAS: Venezuelan opposition supporters holding up letters reading “Justice” gather to listen to the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly and the country’s self-proclaimed “acting president” Juan Guaido, during a rally. —AFP

At a Caracas rally the 35-year-old opposition leader said he will announce a date for "a grand march" for change, and called on supporters to distribute on Sunday print and electronic copies of amnesty measures approved by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which he has headed since January 5. Some 26 people have been killed and more than 350 people have been detained in clashes this week between anti-Maduro activists and security forces, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Friday.

Guaido's support grows

The United States on Saturday pressed all nations to "stand with the forces of freedom" in Venezuela, encouraged by a tougher European line on Maduro. Russia however backed the embattled Venezuelan president. At a special UN Security Council session US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Maduro as part of an "illegitimate mafia state" responsible for Venezuela's economic collapse.

Pompeo asked that all nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, and urged them to end financial transactions with Maduro's government, which has struggled to pay bills despite the country's oil wealth. Pompeo denounced Russia and China, which have stood by Maduro, saying that they were "propping up a failed regime in the hopes of recovering billions of dollars in ill-considered investments and assistance made over the years". Russia denounced the United States for interference. "Venezuela does not pose any threat to peace and security. The intention of the United States is to orchestrate a coup d'etat," said Russia's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia.

Europeans set deadline

President Donald Trump's recognition of Guaido has been supported by many Latin American powers including Brazil, Colombia and Argentina -- but not all. European powers on Saturday warned that they will recognize Guaido unless Maduro calls elections within eight days. "If within eight days there are no fair, free and transparent elections called in Venezuela, Spain will recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuelan president" so that he himself can call the vote, said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Britain, France, and Germany followed, with French President Emmanuel Macron tweeting: "The Venezuelan people must be able to freely decide on their future." The 28-member European Union however is not united, with Greece's ruling left-wing Syriza party voicing "full support and solidarity" for Maduro. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza rejected the ultimatum. "From where do you get the power to issue deadlines or ultimatums to a sovereign people?" he told the Security Council.

Tense days ahead

Maduro's reelection last year was considered illegitimate by the opposition, and rejected by the United States, the EU and the UN as a sham. Up to now however Maduro has retained the loyalty of the powerful military. Both Guaido and Maduro have called for demonstrations next week, raising fears of further violence.

Maduro earlier gave US diplomats until late Saturday to leave Venezuela. Washington said it was ignoring the order as it no longer considered Maduro the president -- but withdrew non-essential staff and argued that Maduro still bore responsibility for diplomats' safety. As the deadline expired, Maduro said he had begun negotiations to set up within 30 days an Interests Section in Caracas to maintain a minimum level of diplomatic contact, similar to the arrangement the US had with Cuba until their 2015 rapprochement. - AFP