Bogota – Venezuelans on Wednesday took to the streets around Caracas in a fresh round of protests to press President Nicolas Maduro to step down and the army to allow the entry of humanitarian aid from the United States.
Maduro had told Russian media he was willing to talk to the opposition but this did nothing to quell the demonstrations, which had been called by Juan Guaido, speaker of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Guaido declared himself the country’s interim president during nationwide protests a week ago.
"We are being sentenced to death for lack of medicines," read one of the placards carried by demonstrators waving Venezuelan flags or wearing caps in the flag colours.
"Guaido president," some of the demonstrators chanted.
The protests were partly aimed at winning over the army, which has so far sided with Maduro, but which is reported to be divided.
Earlier in the day, Maduro met soldiers participating in a military exercise in Caracas in what the broadcaster Telesur described as an attempt to demonstrate the army’s power and loyalty to the government.
The president called on the military to guarantee that "North American imperialism" would never enter Venezuela and for unity in its ranks.
On Twitter, Maduro urged the army to be prepared for "the conspiracies of a group of deserters who have become mercenaries to attack the fatherland."
US President Donald Trump meanwhile spoke by phone with Guaido, whom he has recognized as the interim president of Venezuela, and vowed to "support Venezuela’s path back to stability."
The 35-year-old has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by several Western nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), a league of 35 countries.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Maduro had not responded to a demand from the European Union to hold new presidential elections. EU foreign ministers would meet in Bucharest on Thursday to consider their next step, Le Drian told France’s National Assembly.
In an interview with the German daily Bild on Tuesday, Guaido had called on the EU to follow the US example and to adopt "more sanctions" against Maduro.
On Wednesday, Maduro told Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti he was prepared for talks.
"I am ready to sit at the negotiation table with the opposition so that we can speak for the benefit of Venezuela, for peace and for [Venezuela’s] future," he said.
The offer came after Maduro’s regime stepped up pressure on Guaido, with the Supreme Court on Tuesday banning him from leaving the country and ordering his bank accounts frozen.
Critics say Maduro’s re-election last year was not legitimate and accuse him of becoming increasingly dictatorial. He has also presided over an economic disaster as annual inflation has reached nearly 2 million per cent.
Millions of people have fled food and medicine shortages and political unrest.
The US has pledged 20 million dollars in humanitarian aid at Guaido’s request.
Maduro rejected calls for a new presidential election to be held and blamed the political turmoil on Trump. "There’s no doubt that Donald Trump had ordered to kill me. He told the Colombian government and the Colombian mafia to kill me," Maduro told RIA Novosti.
Colombia has denied claims made by Maduro late last year that it is cooperating with the US to train mercenaries in preparation of an attack against the Venezuelan government.
The Kremlin meanwhile shrugged off rumours that Russia was set to receive a surreptitious delivery of 20 tonnes of gold from Venezuela.
"There is no such information," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS.
Russia expects Venezuela to have trouble servicing more than 3 billion dollars of debt to the Russian state, the Russian Finance Ministry said earlier this week.
Venezuela meanwhile deported two Chilean journalists who had been arrested for 14 hours in Caracas, Chile’s Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero tweeted.
President Sebastian Pinera had demanded the release of the two, who had been doing street interviews, according to the Chilean newscast 24 Horas.
Two Venezuelan journalists who were detained with them had already been released.