Venezuela opposition demonstrates as Maduro calls for early elections
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Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Caracas on Saturday for and against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as he calls for early legislative elections in an attempt to outmanoeuvre the opposition-controlled parliament.
The rival rallies, convened in different parts of the city, come on the eve of a deadline set by the EU and other European powers for Maduro to call "free elections" or have them recognise Juan Guaido -- the leader of the Venezuelan parliament -- as the country's acting president.
The 35-year-old president of Venezuela's National Assembly outlined the opposition's recent moves and called on "blocks" of the military to defect from Maduro's administration and "get on the side of the Venezuelan people."
"We don't just want you to stop shooting at protesters," Guaido said in a hoarse voice. "We want you to be part of the reconstruction of Venezuela."
Guaido also announced the installation of collection centres for medicine and food in neighboring Colombia and Brazil. The United States later said it would transport aid to Venezuela in response to a request by Guaido.
Carrying Venezuelan flags and blowing horns and whistles, his supporters began massed at five locations around the city for a march on EU headquarters in eastern Caracas.
The pro-Maduro forces were rallied in the western side of the city to mark the 20th anniversary of the rise of power of the late Hugo Chavez, the leftist firebrand who installed a socialist government.
For his part, Maduro called for early legislative elections. In a speech to supporters on Saturday, he denounced the National Assembly as "bourgeois" and said it was up to the government-controlled Constituent Assembly to decide whether or not to back his proposal.
Meanwhile hundreds of members of a civilian militia, public workers and people who have benefitted from the government's social programs have concentrated in downtown Caracas in a show of support for their beleaguered leader.
Bolton calls for further defections
The challenge to Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, is his most serious yet, with the United States, Canada and nearly a dozen Latin American countries piling on pressure for his removal from office.
"The US calls on all military members to follow General Yanez's lead, and to protect the peaceful protestors supporting democracy," National Security Advisor John Bolton said in a tweet.
Underscoring the high stakes, Air Force Major General Francisco Yanez announced in a video posted on social media that he disavowed Maduro's "dictatorial" authority and recognized Guaido as the acting president.
Yanez, the strategic planning director of the air force high command, commands no troops but he was the highest ranking active duty officer to defect -- "a hard blow" to the military leadership, which has pledged absolute loyalty to Maduro, said Rocio San Miguel, an expert on the Venezuelan military.
The military and security forces have so far been Maduro's main pillar of support, despite an economic collapse that has created dire shortages of food and medicine and a mass migration to neighboring countries.
But there have been signs of unrest in the ranks.
On January 21, a group of National Guard soldiers rose up against Maduro in Caracas.
The mutiny was quickly put down and 27 soldiers were arrested, but it kicked off a week of violent street clashes between civilians and security forces that the UN said left 40 dead and 850 arrested.
Speaking from an unknown location, Yanez said "90 percent of the armed forces don't support the dictator, they're with the Venezuelan people."
Guaido, who has offered amnesty to members of the military that abandon Maduro, acknowledges that he needs its support.
This week he claimed to have held "clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces."
Assurances to China
Guaido, 35, also moved to reassure China -- Venezuela's main creditor and a long-time ally of the socialist regime -- that he would honor bilateral agreements if successful in ousting Maduro.
China has denounced outside interference in Venezuela but -- unlike Russia, another major creditor that has backed Maduro -- so far has declined to pick sides.
Guaido told the South China Morning Post he would not disrupt the relationship with China despite his close ties to Washington.
"China's support will be very important in boosting our country's economy and future development," he said in an email interview.
"We are ready to begin a constructive relationship and dialogue with China as soon as possible."
China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said cooperation between the countries would continue "no matter how the situation changes" in Venezuela.
European Parliament lawmakers recognized Guaido on Thursday as the interim head of state.
And four major European powers -- Britain, France, Germany and Spain – have vowed to do so if Maduro fails to call presidential elections by midnight on Sunday. "The ultimatum ends tonight," France's European affairs minister Natalie Loiseau told reminded Maduro on Sunday..
The international heave against Maduro's leftist regime came after weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy including secret talks in Washington between Guaido and US officials.
'Time for action'
"Let me be very clear: this is no time for dialogue. This is time for action," Pence warned on Friday. "The time has come to end Maduro's dictatorship once and for all."
In a letter to the presidents of Mexico and Uruguay published Friday, Guaido ruled out any negotiations with Maduro unless they "start the transition process, culminating in the holding of free elections."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)