Venezuela opposition leader names self 'acting president'
The head of Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly proclaimed himself "acting president" Wednesday in a bid to oust leftist leader Nicolas Maduro, immediately winning the backing of regional powers led by the United States.
Tens of thousands jammed the streets of Caracas in an outpouring of support for Juan Guaido amid a dire economic crisis that has devastated the once rich oil-producing country.
"I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president of Venezuela to end the usurpation, (install) a transitional government and hold free elections," Guaido declared to cheering supporters.
US President Donald Trump immediately issued a statement describing Maduro as "illegitimate" and calling the National Assembly "the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people."
Maduro responded by breaking off diplomatic ties with the "imperialist government" of the US and giving the diplomatic mission 72 hours to leave the South American country.
"Get out! Leave Venezuela, here there's dignity, damn it," shouted Maduro to thousands of cheering supporters outside the presidential palace in Caracas.
A number of other countries were quick to follow Trump's lead, with Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Canada among those backing Guaido, although Mexico said it still considered Maduro the president.
Chile, Peru and Paraguay joined the ranks supporting Guaido while the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, congratulated the National Assembly president in a tweet.
"You have all our recognition to launch the return of democracy to the country," he wrote.
The European Union merely said it was "following the developments in Venezuela very closely."
A senior US administration official told journalists the country would take action if the Venezuela regime used force against the opposition.
"If Maduro and his cronies choose to respond with violence, if they choose to harm any of the National Assembly members... all options are on the table for the United States in regards to action to be taken," said the official.
Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition protesters in a Caracas suburb while television pictures also showed armoured vehicles in the capital.
These are the first mass street protests in Venezuela since 125 died in clashes between April and July, 2017.
They were organized to coincide with the 61st anniversary of the fall of the Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship.
In Caracas, tens of thousands of opposition supporters, many dressed in white, chanted, "Guaido, friend, the people are with you" as they waved Venezuelan flags.
"Brothers and sisters, today I step forward with you in the knowledge that we are in a dictatorship," said Guaido.
"I have faith and hope in Guaido, a young lad who can help us to go forward," 49-year-old Florangel Rodriguez told AFP.
"We need international help, that they see and listen to us from outside."
Venezuela's Supreme Court, which is dominated by Maduro loyalists, ordered a criminal investigation of the legislature for trying to depose Maduro.
Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red, converged outside the presidential palace, Miraflores, to oppose what they see as a US-backed opposition coup attempt.
"Today the empire's lackeys, directly backed by the United States, say that Nicolas Maduro was president until now," said the socialist leader's right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello.
"Come here to Miraflores where we're waiting for you."
Since being elected president of the National Assembly in December, the 35-year-old Guaido has quickly managed to rally a previously divided opposition.
The Supreme Court's criminal chamber ratified the "unconstitutionality of the legislative power's actions" but Guaido dismissed the judges as ruling party leaders "disguised as magistrates."
He dismissed fears he could be arrested, saying: "I'm afraid for our people who are suffering."
Maduro has presided over a deepening economic crisis that has left millions in poverty as the country faces shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.
Some 2.3 million people have fled the country since 2015, according to the United Nations, while the International Monetary Fund says inflation will hit a staggering 10 million percent this year.
Ahead of Wednesday's rival protests, six people died from gunshot wounds in overnight clashes, the Social Conflict Observatory NGO reported.
Shops, schools and businesses remained closed on Wednesday and there was little traffic on the roads.
Trouble had been expected, with Venezuela's government ominously warning there would be violence against opposition activists.
Guaido called the protests two weeks ago in a bid to rally support behind his aim to remove Maduro, set up a transitional government and hold elections.
He has accused Maduro of being a usurper over the leader's disputed re-election last year.
Maduro won snap elections in May that were boycotted by the opposition and dismissed as a fraud by the European Union, the US and OAS.