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Venezuela's Guaido calls for 'million volunteers' in aid standoff

Venezuelan opposition leader and self declared acting president Juan Guaido gestures to supporters at the end of a rally with volunteers
Venezuelan opposition leader and self declared acting president Juan Guaido gestures to supporters at the end of a rally with volunteers AFP
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Caracas (AFP)

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido set a goal Sunday of enlisting a million volunteers within a week to confront a government blockade that has kept tons of humanitarian aid, most of it from the United States, from flowing into the country.

Guaido has given February 23 -- one month to the day after he proclaimed himself acting president -- as the date for a showdown over the aid with the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Food supplies, hygiene kits and nutritional supplements have been stockpiled near the Venezuelan border in Cucuta, Colombia.

Additional storage centers are supposed to open this week in Brazil and Curacao, a Dutch island off Venezuela's northern Caribbean coast.

"Our principal task is to reach a million volunteers by February 23," Guaido said in a message to the 600,000 supporters who have signed up so far for the push to bring aid in.

He said the volunteers would gather at designated points, or participate on social media, but has kept to himself how he plans to overcome the obstacles put up by the Venezuelan military, on Maduro's orders.

Maduro, who denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, dismisses the opposition moves as a "political show" and a cover for a US invasion.

An imploding economy has driven an estimated 2.3 Venezuelans to migrate, while those who remain have been punished by hyperinflation that has put scarce food and medicine out of reach for many.

- 'Humanitarian avalanche' -

At Guaido's request, groups of volunteers were holding town hall-style meetings at various locations around the country to begin organizing for the February 23 event.

"Venezuela is preparing for the humanitarian avalanche," Guaido told about 4,000 supporters clad in white T-shirts and green scarves who gathered Saturday to sign up as volunteers.

The throng included doctors, nurses and students.

Without revealing details that could jeopardize the operation, Guaido said volunteer brigades will travel in a bus caravan to entry points for the aid.

Coromoto Crespo, 58, told AFP he volunteered because of the urgent need for supplies.

"To find medicines requires a miracle. I need tablets for high blood pressure, and what I find, I can't pay for," Crespo said.

"One of my relatives died because of a lack of antibiotics."

- 'By land and sea' -

US Senator Marco Rubio, meanwhile, announced on Twitter Sunday that he was traveling to Colombia for a first-hand look at the aid operation in Cucuta.

Three US military cargo planes delivered several dozen more tons (tonnes) of food assistance to Cucuta on Saturday.

Another US aircraft is due in Curacao from Miami on Tuesday, and a collection center for Brazilian aid will open Monday on the border, Guaido's team said.

Saturday's shipment was accompanied by a delegation led by Mark Green, head of the US Agency for International Development.

The aid "will come in, yes oh yes, by land and sea," Guaido said.

On Friday, Maduro instructed his army to prepare a "special deployment plan" for the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Colombia.

He said he would examine "what new forces" might be needed to keep the frontier "inviolable."

Maduro has poured scorn on the aid, spurning it as "crumbs" and "rotten and contaminated food" while blaming shortages of food and medicine on US sanctions.

He said six million families had benefited from subsidized food boxes and he claimed to have bought 933 tons of medicines and medical supplies from China, Cuba and Russia, his main international allies.

"We paid for it with our own money because we're beggars to no one," Maduro said.

On another front, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza confirmed having held two meetings with special US envoy Elliott Abrams. Arreaza, who traveled to New York on February 13, said he held the talks with Abrams at the request of the State Department. He declined to comment on the substance of their discussions.

Guaido repeated his call on Venezuela's military -- whose support for Maduro has been crucial -- to let the aid pass.

"You have, in your hands, the possibility of fighting alongside the people who are suffering the same shortages you are," Guaido said in a tweet addressed to soldiers.

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