Nicolas Maduro fired up the troops as he took part in military drills in Venezuela on Sunday, as the struggle for control of the country turned to the armed forces.
Maduro watched an artillery barrage before giving a stirring speech to soldiers, in which he asked whether they were plotting a ‘coup’ with the United States, to shouts of: ‘No, my commander-in-chief’.
Meanwhile opponent Juan Guaido urged soldiers to lay down their weapons and side with him, as supporters handed out leaflets promising amnesty for any troops willing to switch sides.
Maduro is clinging to power in Venezuela with help from the military after world governments declared his regime illegitimate and called for fresh elections.
Nicolas Maduro toured military bases at the weekend as troops prepared for massive military drills due next month, which he called ‘the most important in our history’
The President, whose rule has been widely disputed, rode on amphibious vehicles then watched as they bombarded a nearby hill with artillery shells
Addressing troops, Maduro asked whether they were part of a coup against him, to which they replied: ‘No, chief commander’
Addressing soldiers in an appearance on state TV on Sunday, Mr Maduro asked whether they were plotting with the ‘imperialist’ United States, which he accused of openly leading a coup against him.
‘No, my commander-in-chief,’ they shouted in unison, and Mr Maduro responded: ‘We’re ready to defend our homeland – under any circumstance.’
Maduro visited several bases over the weekend as the armed forces prepared for massive military drills to take place between February 10 and 15.
He called the drills ‘the most important in our history’ while saying the military must be ready to defend the country ‘in any scenario’.
The duelling appeals from the two rivals again put the military centre stage in the global debate over who holds a legitimate claim to power in the South American nation.
The standoff has plunged troubled Venezuela into a new chapter of political turmoil that has already left more than two dozen dead as thousands took to the streets demanding Mr Maduro step down.
Maduro told the troops they must be ready to defend Venezuela ‘in any circumstance’ after the US declared his rule illegitimate
Maduro is clinging to power in Venezuela, with the loyalty of the military seen as key to maintaining his grip on the country
During his visit to an army base near Caracas, Maduro announced massive military drills to take place between February 10 and 15
Maduro has just begun a second term as President of Venezuela amid international condemnation over elections which were panned as illegitimate
His rival Mr Guaido is calling for two new mass protests over the next week.
Speaking ahead of the protests, Mr Guaido repeated his calls for the military to step aside and allow him to seize power.
‘This is no time for more deaths or more sacrifices,’ he told The Guardian.
He also sought to calm fears that the country will break up or plunge into civil war, saying: ‘I don’t think we will reach that point. The idea is to increase pressure.’
Guaido has touted ’emerging’ support within the military after Venezuela’s top military representative to the US declared that he now recognises Guaido as the president, abandoning Maduro.
Colonel Jose Luis Silva was promptly denounced as a ‘traitor’ to the country while the defence ministry said he was guilty of treason.
The tumult erupted when Mr Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress, declared before masses of supporters last week that he has temporarily assumed presidential powers, vowing to hold free elections and end Mr Maduro’s dictatorship.
US president Donald Trump and several foreign leaders quickly recognised Mr Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, prompting Mr Maduro to cut ties with the US and order its diplomats from Caracas within 72 hours.
Juan Guaido declared himself interim President of Venezuela last week and was recognised by the US as he called for Maduro to step aside and hold fresh election
Guaido has been calling on the military to step aside and allow Maduro to go, with supporters handing leaflets to soldiers which promised amnesty in return for swapping sides
A member of the national guard burns a leaflet encouraging the military to step aside and allow Maduro to fall from power
A pile of torn-up leaflets handed to soldiers are seen on the streets of Caracas, where mass demonstrations are planned for next week
The US defied him, saying Mr Maduro is not the legitimate president, and Mr Maduro relented, suspending the deadline for 30 days for the sake of opening a dialogue.
Venezuela’s crisis came before the UN Security Council on Saturday, which took no formal action because of divisions among members.
Russia and China back Mr Maduro, but France and Britain joined Spain and Germany in turning up the pressure on him, saying they would recognise Mr Guaido as president unless Venezuela calls a new presidential election within eight days.
‘Where do you get that you have the power to establish a deadline or an ultimatum to a sovereign people?’ said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza. ‘It’s almost childlike.’
Venezuela’s armed forces remain the key to Mr Maduro’s hold on power, firing tear gas and bullets on protesters, killing more than two dozen since Wednesday.
While rank-and-file troops remain loyal to Maduro, at the weekend Colonel Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s military attache in the United States, announced he was defecting
In response to news of his defection, Venezuela’s defence ministry said Col Silva was guilty of treason, and tweeted photos of him with the word ‘traitor’ on them
Mr Guaido is urging Venezuelans to leave their homes, offices or wherever they may be on Wednesday for a peaceful, two-hour midday protest.
He is also asking followers to take to the streets again Saturday for demonstrations ‘in every corner’ of the nation and around the globe, to coincide with the European Union deadline for announcing a new election.
‘We’re advancing well, Venezuela,’ Mr Guaido said in his broadcast, streamed live on the internet. ‘We’ve restored hope.’
The Trump administration has maintained that all options remain open if Mr Maduro refuses to cede leadership, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday.
‘I don’t think any president of any party who is doing his or her job would be doing the job properly if they took anything off the table,’ he said. ‘So, I think the president of the United States is looking at this extraordinarily closely.’