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Guaido cranks up pressure on Maduro

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Venezuela’s opposition leader stepped up his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, calling for a “major demonstration” and rejecting an offer of talks with the socialist leader.

National Assembly head Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself acting president during street rallies by tens of thousands on Wednesday, said he wouldn’t attend a “fake dialogue” on a crisis that has left 26 dead this week in clashes between anti-Maduro activists and security forces.

After four years of economic pain that has left Venezuelans short of food and medicine and driven more than two million to flee the country — which sits on the world’s largest oil reserves — the opposition found its voice this month in Mr Guaido after Mr Maduro was sworn in for a second presidential term following controversial elections.

Mexico had offered to host talks between the rival leaders, and Mr Maduro professed he was ready to go “wherever I have to.”

But Mr Guaido, who is backed by the US and several Latin American countries, told supporters in Caracas the public would remain in the streets “until we achieve an end to the usurpation, a transitional government and free elections.”

He accused President Maduro’s regime of only offering talks after “repression” failed to achieve its objectives.

The European Union and US have ratcheted up the pressure on Mr Maduro to agree to a new vote. An EU diplomat told AFP the bloc wanted “an immediate call for elections in the near future.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will underline US support for the Venezuelan people at a UN Security Council meeting Saturday and urge members to recognise Mr Guaido as interim president, the State Department said.

President Donald Trump’s administration has spearheaded the international pressure on Mr Maduro, who accuses Washington of being behind an attempted “coup,” by declaring his regime “illegitimate.”

On Friday, Mr Pompeo announced the US was naming a new envoy to lead efforts to help Venezuela “in achieving democracy.” Elliot Abrams was a central figure in former president Ronald Reagan’s controversial anti-communist campaigns in Central America during the 1980s.

Washington’s immediate support for Mr Guaido led to Mr Maduro, who retains the powerful military’s backing, closing his country’s embassy and consulates in the US and breaking off diplomatic ties, giving US diplomatic staff until Saturday to leave the country.

Mr Guaido, though, urged the US diplomats to stay and keep the embassy’s doors open.

Mr Maduro’s deadline runs out on Saturday but even though it ordered non-emergency staff to leave Venezuela, the US has refused to comply fully with the order.

Despite the diplomatic sparring, the President on Friday said his country will continue to sell oil to the United States, which private consultants say provides the largest source of cash to Venezuelan coffers.

“If they buy our oil, we will sell oil,” he said.

But the US Treasury Department warned that “commercial transactions by the Venezuelan Government, including those involving its state-owned enterprises and international reserves” must be consistent with Washington’s recognition of Mr Guaido.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — whose country is Venezuela’s second-largest creditor and a military ally — denounced US policy on Venezuela as “destructive.”

Spain pushed the EU to recognise Mr Guaido’s claims to the presidency if no new elections are held, while Germany said it may follow suit.

France warned Mr Maduro against “any form of repression” of the opposition as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said more than 350 people were arrested this week during the protests.

Mr Maduro’s re-election last year was boycotted by the opposition and rejected by the US, EU and UN as a sham — but the military has repeatedly reiterated its loyalty to the socialist leader.

Mr Guaido, 35, has galvanized a previously divided opposition and even attempted to attract military support by offering an amnesty to anyone who disavows Mr Maduro.

In a Skype interview with Univision late Thursday he went one step further by suggesting Mr Maduro could also be offered amnesty if he agrees to step down.

But such an option would have to be evaluated, he said, because he is responsible for the deaths of protesters.

Mr Guaido continues to seek military support, though, and has tasked his supporters with handing out copies of the amnesty law parliament is working on to soldiers on Sunday.

Analysts at the Eurasia Group consultancy noted that while international recognition of Mr Guaido as interim president cemented his position as the main opposition leader, his failure to win over the military meant Mr Maduro’s fall “does not appear imminent.”

Venezuela’s political crisis rapidly escalated after a group of soldiers rose up against Mr Maduro this week and sparked a number of protests leading up to Wednesday’s rival rallies of pro and anti-Maduro groups.

Mr Guaido’s proclamation of himself as acting president drew recognition from major regional players including Brazil and Argentina, as well as the US.

President Trump has openly mused about military intervention in Venezuela, saying “all options are on the table,” but Russia said that “violates the fundamental norms of international law.”

Mr Maduro came to power in 2013 as the designated heir to the hugely-popular Hugo Chavez.

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