MADRID: Spain, Britain, France and other EU nations on Monday recognised Venezuela’s opposition chief Juan Guaido as interim leader after President Nicolas Maduro rejected their ultimatum to call snap presidential elections.
Russia, one of the main allies of Maduro’s regime, slammed what it dubbed European "interference" in the oil-rich but impoverished Latin American country, saying it was an attempt "to legitimise usurped power."
Already recognised by the United States, Canada, Australia and several Latin American countries, Guaido is trying to force the socialist leader from power, aiming to set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections.
After announcing the Spanish government’s official recognition of Guaido, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez urged the 35-year-old National Assembly head to "call elections as soon as possible, elections that have to be free and democratic".
Sanchez said he wanted Spain to spearhead a plan of humanitarian aid for Venezuela in the European Union and United Nations. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt promptly followed suit, saying on Twitter he hoped "this takes us closer to ending humanitarian crisis."
France, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and the Netherlands also recognised Guaido. "Venezuelans have the right to express themselves freely and democratically," French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
Seven EU states had given Maduro a Sunday deadline to call presidential elections or they would recognise Guaido. But in an interview with Spanish television station Sexta broadcast on Sunday evening, Maduro said he would not "cave in to pressure" from those calling for his departure.
"Why does the European Union have to tell a country in the world that has already had elections that it has to repeat its presidential elections, because they were not won by their right-wing allies?" said Maduro, interviewed in Caracas.
"They are trying to corner us with ultimatums to force us into an extreme situation of confrontation," Maduro said. Maduro started a new term in office last month after 2018 elections that were branded invalid by the opposition.
He has said he is only willing to call new elections to the opposition-held National Assembly. However, he supported plans for a meeting of Latin American and EU states in a "Contact Group" meeting in Montevideo next Thursday.
Under Maduro’s stewardship, oil-dependent Venezuela has plunged into an economic crisis, suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. On Monday, oil prices rose to their highest level yet this year on European markets on the back of the crisis in Venezuela.
After several years of opposition efforts to oust Maduro, Guaido declared himself acting president at a rally on January 23. At the weekend, he called on the army to allow in humanitarian aid from the United States via neighbouring Colombia and Brazil.
Maduro claims the US pledge to deliver $20 million in aid relief would precede military intervention. Guaido says up to 300,000 people are "at risk of death" in Venezuela for want of humanitarian assistance.
US President Donald Trump warned that military intervention remains "an option" for dealing with the crisis in Venezuela. All eyes are now on Venezuela’s military, which has so far been Maduro’s main pillar of support, but there have been signs of wavering in the ranks.
A top air force general publicly sided with Guaido on Saturday. On Sunday, Maduro addressed troops on military exercises, calling on them for "maximum cohesion".
Tens of thousands of people turned out Saturday for competing shows of support for Guaido and for Maduro. Guaido has called for a new demonstration on February 12 and another protest to push for the entry of aid.
Forty people were killed in clashes with security forces in a week of protests coinciding with Guaido’s self-proclamation as acting leader, with hundreds more arrested, according to the United Nations. The 14-nation Lima Group -- made up of Canada and Latin American countries -- meets in Ottawa on Monday. Eleven of its members have recognised Guaido.
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