Guaido calls for military support in uprising to oust Maduro

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has taken to the streets with detained activist Leopoldo Lopez and a small contingent of heavily armed soldiers in a military uprising, but the country’s president remains defiant, saying top military leaders have assured him of their loyalty.

Guaido said on Tuesday he had begun the “final phase” of his plan to oust President Nicolas Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the military to back him to end Maduro’s “usurpation.”

“The national armed forces have taken the correct decision, and they count on the support of the Venezuelan people,” Guaido said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Lopez said he had been freed by the military.

“This is the moment of all Venezuelans, those in uniform and those who aren’t,” said Lopez in his first public appearance since being detained in 2014 for leading anti-government protests. “Everyone should come to the streets, in peace.”

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized by many members of the international community as the country’s rightful interim ruler, talks to media outside the airforce base La Carlota on Tuesday in Caracas, Venezuela. (Rafael Briceno/Getty Images)

“It’s now or never,” said one of the young soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna preferred by the few dozen soldiers who stood alongside Guaido and Lopez.

The rebellion seems to have only limited military support.

As the two allies co-ordinated actions from vehicles parked on a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro sporadically fired tear gas from inside the adjacent Carlota air base.

Since 2002, we’ve seen the same pattern. They call for violence, a coup, and send people into the streets so that there are confrontations and deaths. And then from the blood they try to construct a narrative.– Jorge Arreaza, Maduro’s foreign minister 

A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Guaido at a nearby plaza away from the disturbances.

A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the highway, lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the air base, and setting a government bus on fire.

Amid the mayhem, an armoured utility vehicle drove at full speed into the crowd. Two demonstrators, their heads and legs bloodied, were rushed away on a motorcycle.

Maduro took to Twitter to say that the top commanders of the various divisions of the military had assured him of their loyalty. 

A screengrab taken from video shows a Venezuelan military vehicle heading into protesters in Caracas on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured in the incident. (CBC News)

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza alleged that the U.S. likely paid a guard to allow Lopez escape house arrest.

“Since 2002, we’ve seen the same pattern,” Arreaza told The Associated Press, adding that most of Caracas was calm. “They call for violence, a coup, and send people into the streets so that there are confrontations and deaths. And then from the blood they try to construct a narrative.”

Earlier, Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez tweeted the government was confronting a small group of “military traitors” seeking to promote a coup.

‘Movement headed by Venezuelans’

It appeared the government was attempting to block access to major social media and video streaming channels such as Twitter, Periscope and YouTube, with citizens reporting difficulty accessing them, according to a CBC reporter.

Guaido’s ambassador in the U.S., Carlos Vecchio, denied the claim that the U.S. played in role in Tuesday’s development.

An opposition demonstrator gestures in front of a burning bus, while holding a rock, near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase in Caracas. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Vecchio said in a news conference in Washington that the protest “is a movement headed by Venezuelans.”

Guaido, of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.

He has been travelling outside the capital, Caracas, more and more in recent weeks to try to put pressure on Maduro to step down.

Maduro calls Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaido openly violated earlier this year.

The developments on Tuesday were being monitored closely by the international community, including by U.S. President Donald Trump, the White House said.

Russia slams ‘radical opposition’

Venezuelan troops should “stand by the national assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy,” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said in a tweet directed at Vladimir Padrino, Maduro’s defence minister.

Padrino on Twitter rejected what he called an attempt by a “subversive movement” to generate “panic and terror.”

A military member throws a tear gas canister near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase in Caracas. Representatives of the Maduro government downplayed any threat early Tuesday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted: “The safety and security of [Juan Guaido] and [Leopoldo Lopez] must be guaranteed.

“Venezuelans who peacefully support Interim President Guaido must do so without fear of intimidation or violence,” added Freeland, a key player in the Lima Group of countries that gather frequently to grapple with the political and humanitarian tumult in Venezuela.

The Canadian Embassy in Caracas was closed on Tuesday.

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, centre, in grey, stands near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase in Caracas on Tuesday. Lopez has been jailed or put in house detention for much of the past five years. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres was available to mediate if both sides requested his help, his spokesperson said.

“The secretary general urges all sides to exercise maximum restraint, and he appeals to all stakeholders to avoid any violence and take immediate steps to restore calm,” Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

March planned for Wednesday

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his foreign relations department expressed concern over a possible escalation of violence and bloodshed, with Lopez Obrador repeating in a Tuesday morning news conference that dialogue was the preferred path. Mexico is among a minority of Latin American countries to not recognize Guaido as interim leader of Venezuela.

The Russian government said President Vladimir Putin discussed the Venezuelan situation with his top security body.

Venezuelan military deserters of the national guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia on Monday. (Juan Pablo Bayona/Reuters)

While Russia’s foreign ministry echoed the calls of other countries to “avoid unrest and bloodshed,” its statement also called on “the radical opposition” in Venezuela to stand down. Russia has provided economic and logistical support to Maduro’s regime.

Guaido said soldiers who had taken to the streets were protecting Venezuela’s constitution. He made the comments a day before a planned anti-government rally that he has promoted as “the largest march in Venezuela’s history.”

“The moment is now,” he said.

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