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Russia, Venezuelan military top brass back Maduro

Luis Robayo, AFP | Venezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez (L) at a press conference with top military officials in Caracas, Jan. 24, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin backed embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro on Thursday, with the country’s top military brass also pledging their unwavering support for the controversial leader.

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A day after Venezuela’s National Assembly head Juan Guaido proclaimed himself the country’s interim president in a move welcomed by the US, Canada and several countries in the hemisphere, Venezuela’s top military officials delivered vows of loyalty to Maduro.

Juan Guaido: The face of Venezuela's anti-Maduro opposition

Around a half-dozen military generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing the US of meddling in Venezuela's affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader's rule.

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a key Maduro ally, later delivered his own proclamation, dismissing efforts to install a "de-facto parallel government" as tantamount to a coup.

"It's not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems," Lopez said. "It's dialogue."

Unchartered waters

Venezuelans are heading into uncharted political waters after Guaido declared himself acting president following the widely contested May 2018 presidential election. Under Venezuela’s constitution, a vacancy in the presidency must be filled by the head of the National Assembly until new elections are held.

Shortly after Washington’s recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, Maduro dug in for fight, breaking diplomatic ties with the US, giving Washington DC diplomats in Venezuela 72 hours to leave the country, and closing its embassy in the United States on Thursday.

The US stopped short of complying with the full expulsion demanded by Maduro but ordered non-emergency embassy staff to leave Venezuela. The State Department also said that US citizens "should strongly consider departing Venezuela".

Earlier, Maduro announced that Venezuela was to close its embassies and all consulates in the US.

Russia, however, has backed Maduro, with Putin calling his Venezuelan counterpart to express “support for the legitimate authorities of Venezuela in the context of a domestic political crisis that has been provoked from the outside", said the Kremlin.

Moscow has warned Washington against any attempts to intervene militarily in Venezuela.

Russia has extensive economic interests in Venezuela and has invested billions of dollars in its energy sector.

Military as arbiter of political disputes

All eyes have been on the military, a traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, as a critical indicator of whether the opposition will succeed in establishing a new government.

Though many rank-and-file troops suffer the same hardships as countless other Venezuelans when it comes to meeting basic needs like feeding their families, Maduro has worked to cement their support with bonuses and other special benefits.

Venezuela's ambassador to France: 'Juan Guaidó is the real usurper'

In a video addressing the military earlier this week, Guiado said the constitution requires them to disavow Maduro after his May 2018 re-election, which was widely condemned by the international community in part because his main opponents were banned from running. He told them he was not asking them to commit a coup but rather to not shoot at demonstrators.

But on Wednesday, there were no signs that security forces were widely heeding Guaido's call to go easy on demonstrators.

Guaido in a ‘safe place’

Meanwhile life in the capital, Caracas, appeared to be returning to normal Thursday after a dramatic day that saw mass anti-government protests in several cities that left at least a dozen dead.

Amid concerns over Guaido’s safety, opposition sources told reporters that the 35-year-old opposition leader was in a "safe place" without revealing specifics of his location.

He later appeared in an interview with broadcaster Univision, in which he said he belived this was "the beginning of the end" for Maduro.

"Our challenge is to secure free elections, and we want them as soon as possible. But we are living in a dictatorship," he said from an undisclosed location.

Amnesty offer a 'game changer' in Venezuela crisis

He repeated his proposal of future amnesties to officials and military members who disavowed Maduro, even saying the offer could be extended to government ministers and to Maduro himself if they willingly left power.

Messages of support for the opposition continued to pour in from abroad, with French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called Maduro’s 2018 election “illegitimate” and welcomed “the courage of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans” who demonstrated the day before “for their freedom”.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also called Guaido and UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt stated that Maduro "is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela".

Alongside the US, much of the international community is rallying behind Guaido, with Canada and numerous Latin American and European countries announcing that they recognised his claim to the presidency.

President Donald Trump promised Wednesday to use the "full weight" of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela's democracy.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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