Caracas: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro, and violence broke out at anti-government protests as the country hit a new crisis point after years of political and economic chaos.
Several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally outside the La Carlota air base in Caracas, but the incident fizzled out and did not appear to be part of an immediate attempt by the opposition to take power through military force.
Guaido, in Twitter posts, wrote that he had begun the "final phase" of his campaign to topple Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the armed forces to back him ahead of May Day mass street protests planned for Wednesday.
"The moment is now!" he wrote. "The future is ours: the people and Armed Forces united to put an end" to Maduro`s time in office.
Tens of thousands of people were marching in Caracas in support of Guaido on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armoured car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino called the latest instability a "coup movement" but several hours after Guaido`s announcement there was no sign of any other anti-Maduro military activity. Guaido later left a rally he was holding with military supporters at the air base.
Doctor Maggi Santi of the Salud Chacao health centre in eastern Caracas said there were 36 people injured in Tuesday`s incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.
Repeated opposition attempts to force Maduro, a socialist, from power through huge protests and calls on the military to act have so far failed.
Maduro, a former bus driver who took office after the death of political mentor President Hugo Chavez in 2013, said on Tuesday he had spoken with military leaders and that they had shown him "their total loyalty."
"Nerves of steel!" Maduro wrote on Twitter. "I call for maximum popular mobilization to assure the victory of peace. We will win!"
The move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks the support he says he has. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.
The United States is among some 50 countries that recognise Guaido as Venezuela`s president, and has imposed sanctions to try to dislodge Maduro, who they say won re-election last year through fraud.
"Whatever happens now, we won`t let ourselves be stopped. Our process is moving on step by step, in accordance with our constitution. We continue to stand for non-violence," Guaido told German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview released on Tuesday.
Oil prices topped $73, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by US sanctions and an economic crisis.
Guaido`s efforts appeared aimed at building momentum towards the May Day mass street protests and making them a turning point in his push to oust Maduro.
Guaido has said Wednesday`s protests will be the largest march in Venezuela`s history and part of the "definitive phase" of his effort to take office in order to call fresh elections.
Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.
The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.
"My mother doesn`t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don`t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime," said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike in a protest on Tuesday.
Guaido, the leader of Venezuela`s opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro`s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.
US President Donald Trump "has been briefed and is monitoring the ongoing situation," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Tuesday. The White House declined to comment on whether the administration had been consulted or had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.
Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday`s events.
"No. This is a movement led by Venezuelans," he said.
But Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, who is loyal to Maduro, blamed the United States.
"This is directly planned in Washington, in the Pentagon and Department of State, and by (national security adviser John) Bolton," Arreaza told Reuters.
Bolton, a foreign policy hawk, backed Guaido`s actions on Tuesday. "The FANB must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people. It should stand by the National Assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy," Bolton tweeted, referring to the FANB armed forces.
Brazil`s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his nation`s solidarity for the people of Venezuela, who he said were "enslaved by a dictator."
Maduro has appeared to retain control of state institutions and the loyalty of senior military officers and has foreign allies such as Russia and Cuba.
Russia`s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country`s armed forces into clashes.
Maduro has called Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaido openly violated earlier this year.
Guaido, in a video on his Twitter account, was accompanied by men in military uniform and opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, who had been placed under house arrest in 2017.