Venezuelan military official breaks with Nicolas Maduro, backs opposition

Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza is pictured at the United Nations during a Security Council meeting about the situation in Venezuela in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 26, 2019.

The Trump administration announced it was recognizing the 35-year-old leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly quickly after his oath, leading Maduro to say that he was breaking all diplomatic ties with the United States and expelling US diplomats.

Pompeo urged the council to recognize National Assembly chief and opposition leader Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president Wednesday, instead of President Nicolas Maduro, The Washington Post reported.

The Trump administration's new special envoy on the Venezuelan political crisis is well known in Latin American circles - from his guilty plea for withholding information about the Iran-Contra affair to his attempt to discredit accounts of the massacre of almost 1,000 people by a US-trained military battalion in El Salvador.

Venezuela has sunk into turmoil under Maduro with food shortages and daily protests amid an economic and political crisis that has sparked mass emigration and inflation that is seen rising to 10 million percent this year.

In heated back-and-forth exchanges at a United Nations Security Council meeting, the opposing camp led by Venezuela and Russian Federation, which has invested heavily in Venezuela's oil industry, accused Washington of attempting a coup, and lambasted Europeans' demand that elections be called within eight days. "Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem".

"Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side ..."

But the opposition to Guaido was reflected in the initial procedural vote on whether the 15-member Security Council should even discuss the crisis in Venezuela, which is not on its official agenda. The domestic opposition, the United States and right-leaning Latin American governments declined to recognise the result of the ballot.

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United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru have recognized Guaido as the country's interim president.

Maduro cruised to re-election last May amid low turnout and allegations of vote buying by the government.

Several hundred people cheered Guaido, 35, at a rally in Caracas, where the streets were mostly quiet after days of violent protests.

Russia, supported by Bolivia, Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua and Turkey have been vehement in their bid not to recognise the opposition government in Venezuela.

On Saturday, Guaido celebrated the support of European countries and asked them to send humanitarian aid to help relieve the economic crisis.

Russia's Nebenzia, who opposed Saturday's meeting, said it was useful because it showed Washington that a majority of countries favor Venezuela's sovereignty, territorial independence, and non-interference in its internal affairs.

Maduro has a Saturday afternoon deadline for U.S. diplomats to leave his country, but the U.S. State Department has left behind essential diplomats and said Maduro's orders as a "former president" have no authority.

Guaido is instead urging the United States diplomats to stay and keep the embassy's doors open.

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