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Defiant Venezuela president ridicules opposition attempts to oust him

Nicolas Maduro’s supporters gathered near the presidential palace after US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido had urged an uprising to topple him.

Supporters of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro gather to show their support for him outside Miraflores presidential palace, by an image of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar (Boris Vergara/AP)
Supporters of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro gather to show their support for him outside Miraflores presidential palace, by an image of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar (Boris Vergara/AP)

Juan Guaido’s Operation Freedom entered another day as Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro ridiculed claims he had planned to flee to Cuba after the opposition leader’s dawn call on Tuesday for a military uprising.

Like past attempts to oust Mr Maduro, the opposition seemed outmanoeuvred again as security forces using repressive tactics to crush small pockets of stone-throwing youths.

Millions of Venezuelans watched the drama unfold with a mix of fear and exasperation.

Mr Guaido started Wednesday with a tweet listing assembly spots, saying: “Good day, today we continue, here are the points where we are concentrating today in Caracas. We are continuing with more strength than ever Venezuela.”

Mr Maduro sought to rally his supporters with a tweet condemning “yankee interference”.

The president tweeted: “Today the Venezuelan working class is mobilising in all the country to celebrate its day and defend its achievements, with a big march that will say no to putschism and no to yankee interference. Nerves of steel, calmness and sanity. Long live the workers and of the country!”

On Tuesday the opposition’s hoped-for split in the military did not emerge, a plane that the United States claimed was standing by to ferry Mr Maduro into exile never took off and by nightfall one of the government’s bravest opponents, who defied house arrest to join the insurrection, had quietly sought refuge with his family in a foreign embassy.

Mr Guaido, the telegenic 35-year-old leader of the opposition-dominated congress who is recognised by the US and over 50 nations as Venezuela’s rightful president, nonetheless pressed forward in calling for a new round of mass street protests.

Opposition forces are hoping that Venezuelans angered by broadcast images of armoured vehicles ploughing into protesters and fed up with their nation’s dire humanitarian crisis will fill streets across the nation.

In one blow to Mr Maduro, the head of Venezuela’s feared intelligence agency announced that he was breaking ranks with the embattled socialist leader.

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Men look to recover usable parts from motorcycles burned during the previous day’s clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Caracas, Venezuela (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

“We need to keep up the pressure,” Mr Guaido said.

“We will be in the streets.”

The latest chapter in Venezuela’s political upheaval marks the most serious threat yet to Mr Maduro’s contested rule.

The leader, who has been relying on support from Russia and China, was largely absent as events unfolded on Tuesday.

He finally emerged late in the evening to call the small-scale uprising a failed US-backed coup attempt.

Speaking on state television, Mr Maduro said that the unrest had been quelled and that Venezuela would not succumb to right-wing forces intent on “submitting our country to a neocolonial economic domination model and enslaving Venezuela”.

“Now you can see a Venezuela largely in peace,” he proclaimed.

Venezuelans waited to see if that remained the case.

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A Bolivarian National Guard vehicle sprays opponents of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (Ariana Cubillos?AP)

The competing quests to solidify a hold on power produced one of the most stunning days yet for a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves but is struggling with an economic contraction that is worse than the US Great Depression.

The turmoil on Tuesday began when Mr Guaido, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armoured crowd-control vehicles, released a three-minute video shot near the Carlota air base.

In a surprise, Leopoldo Lopez, Mr Guaido’s political mentor and the nation’s most-prominent opposition activist, stood alongside him.

Detained in 2014 for leading a previous round of anti-government unrest, Mr Lopez said he had been released from house arrest by security forces following an order from Mr Guaido.

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A supporter of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (Boris Vergara/AP)

“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” Mr Lopez declared.

As the two opposition leaders coordinated actions from a motorway overpass, troops loyal to Mr Maduro fired tear gas from inside the adjacent air base.

A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Mr Guaido at a plaza a few blocks away.

A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the road, lobbing rocks and petrol bombs toward the air base and setting a government bus on fire.

“It’s now or never,” said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna worn by the few dozen insurgent soldiers.

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An opponent of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (Boris Vergara/AP)

Amid the mayhem, several armoured utility vehicles drove at full speed into the crowd.

Two demonstrators, lying on the ground with their heads and legs bloodied, were rushed away on a motorcycle as the armoured vehicles sped away dodging petrol bombs thrown by the demonstrators.

The head of a medical centre near the site of the street battles said doctors were treating over 50 people, about half of them with injuries suffered from rubber bullets.

At least one person had been shot with live ammunition.

The Venezuelan human rights group Provea said a 24-year-old man was fatally shot during an anti-government protest in the city of La Victoria.

Later Tuesday, Mr Lopez and his family sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence and later moved to the Spanish Embassy.

There were also reports that 25 soldiers who had been with Mr Guaido fled to Brazil’s diplomatic mission.

Amid the unrest, Mr Maduro’s military commanders went on state television to proclaim their loyalty.

Flanked by top generals, defence minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez condemned Mr Guaido’s move as a “terrorist” act and “coup attempt” that was bound to fail like past uprisings.

“Those who try to take Miraflores with violence will be met with violence,” he said, referring to the presidential palace where hundreds of government supporters, some of them brandishing firearms, gathered in response to a call to defend Mr Maduro.

But in a possible sign that Mr Maduro’s inner circle could be fracturing, the head of Venezuela’s secret police wrote a letter breaking ranks with the embattled leader.

In a letter directed to the Venezuelan people, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the head of Venezuela’s feared SEBIN intelligence agency, said he had always been loyal to Mr Maduro but now it is time to “rebuild the country”.

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The Francisco Fajardo road sits empty the day after clashes occurred (Boris Vergara/AP)

He said corruption has become so rampant that “many high-ranking public servants practise it like a sport”.

“The hour has arrived for us to look for other ways of doing politics,” Mr Figuera wrote.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed Mr Maduro had an airplane “on the tarmac” Tuesday morning and was ready to flee but was dissuaded by “Russians”.

Mr Maduro ridiculed that idea in his TV speech, adding: “Mr Pompeo, what lack of seriousness.”

Most shops and businesses were closed and the streets of the capital unusually quiet as people huddled at home to await the outcome of the drama.

Mr Guaido said he called for the uprising to restore a constitutional order broken when Mr Maduro was sworn in earlier this year for a second term following a presidential election boycotted by the opposition and considered illegitimate by dozens of countries.

As events unfolded, governments around the world expressed support for Mr Guaido while reiterating calls to avoid violent confrontation.

US national security adviser John Bolton said the Trump administration was waiting for three key officials, including Mr Maduro’s defence minister and head of the supreme court, to act on what he said were private pledges to remove Mr Maduro.

“All agreed that Maduro had to go,” Mr Bolton said.

Thus far, Mr Maduro has refrained from detaining Mr Guaido, but the president said Tuesday night that Venezuela’s chief prosecutor was assigning three deputies to investigate the uprising and promised there “will be criminal charges”.

“What do they want, a military battle?” Mr Maduro asked, seated beside the Venezuelan flag.

“Does that benefit Venezuela, democracy, peace?”

PA

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