Caracas: Venezuela's opposition leader has stepped up his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro, rejecting an offer of talks with the socialist leader and calling for a "major demonstration." National Assembly head Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself acting president during massive street rallies, said Friday that 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 Guaido after Maduro was sworn in for a second presidential term following controversial elections.
International pressure on the Maduro regime to agree to a new vote is also mounting. On Saturday at a UN Security Council meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will urge members to recognize Guaido as interim president, the State Department said.
And a European Union diplomat told AFP the bloc wanted "an immediate call for elections in the near future." Mexico had offered to host talks between the rival leaders, and Maduro professed he was ready to go "wherever I have to" in order to meet "that young man." But Guaido, who also has support from 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 Maduro of only offering talks after "repression" failed to achieve its objectives.
President Donald Trump's administration has spearheaded the international pressure on Maduro, who accuses Washington of being behind an attempted "coup," by declaring his regime "illegitimate." On Friday, Pompeo announced that Washington was naming Elliot Abrams -- a central figure in president Ronald Reagan's controversial anti-communist campaigns in Central America during the 1980s -- as its new envoy to lead efforts to help Venezuela "in achieving democracy." Washington's support for Guaido led Maduro, who nominally retains support of the Venezuelan military, to close the US embassy and consulates and break diplomatic ties.
US diplomats in Venezuela have until Saturday to leave the country, but Washington has refused to fully comply fully with the exit order. Guaido is instead urging the US diplomats to stay and keep the embassy's doors open.
Despite the diplomatic sparring, Maduro on Friday said Venezuela will continue to sell oil to the United States, which private consultants say provides the largest source of cash to his country's coffers. "If they buy our oil, we will sell oil," Maduro 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 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 recognize Guaido's claims to the presidency if no new elections are held, while Germany said it may follow suit.
France warned 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.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission late Friday issued a statement warning that Guaido's life and health were in danger given the high political tension in the country.
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.
Guaido, 35, has galvanized a previously divided opposition and even attempted to attract military support by offering an amnesty to anyone who disavows Maduro. In a Skype interview with Univision late Thursday he went one step further by suggesting Maduro could be offered amnesty if he agrees to step down.
But such an option would have to be evaluated, he said, because Maduro is responsible for the deaths of protesters. Guaido continues to seek military support, and has tasked supporters with handing out copies of a draft amnesty law to soldiers.
Analysts at the Eurasia Group consultancy noted that while international recognition of Guaido as interim president cemented his position as the main opposition leader, his failure to win over the military meant Maduro's fall "does not appear imminent." Venezuela's political crisis escalated after a group of soldiers rose up against Maduro and sparked a number of protests leading up to Wednesday's rival rallies of pro and anti-Maduro groups.
Guaido's proclamation as acting president drew recognition from major regional players including Brazil and Argentina, as well as the United States.
Trump has mused about military intervention in Venezuela, saying "all options are on the table," but Russia said that "violates the fundamental norms of international law." Maduro came to power in 2013 as the designated heir to the late and hugely-popular Hugo Chavez. (AFP)