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Venezuela opposition leader cranks up pressure

Venezuela opposition leader cranks up pressure
Highlights

Venezuelas opposition leader has stepped up his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro, rejecting an offer of talks with the socialist leader and...

Caracas: Venezuela's opposition leader has stepped up his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro, rejecting an offer of talks with the socialist leader and calling for a "major demonstration." National Assembly head Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself acting President during massive street rallies, said on Friday that he wouldn't attend a "fake dialogue" on a crisis that has left 26 dead this week in clashes between anti-Maduro activists and security forces.

After four years of economic pain that has left Venezuelans short of food and medicine and driven more than two million to flee the country -- which sits on the world's largest oil reserves -- the opposition found its voice this month in Guaido after Maduro was sworn in for a second Presidential term following controversial elections.

International pressure on the Maduro regime to agree to a new vote is also mounting. On Saturday at a UN Security Council meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will urge members to recognize Guaido as interim president, the State Department said. And a European Union diplomat told AFP the bloc wanted "an immediate call for elections in the near future." Mexico had offered to host talks between the rival leaders, and Maduro professed he was ready to go "wherever I have to" in order to meet "that young man."

But Guaido, who also has support from several Latin American countries, told supporters in Caracas the public would remain in the streets "until we achieve an end to the usurpation, a transitional government and free elections." He accused Maduro of only offering talks after "repression" failed to achieve its objectives.

President Donald Trump's administration has spearheaded the international pressure on Maduro, who accuses Washington of being behind an attempted "coup," by declaring his regime "illegitimate." On Friday, Pompeo announced that Washington was naming Elliot Abrams -- a central figure in president Ronald Reagan's controversial anti-communist campaigns in Central America during the 1980s -- as its new envoy to lead efforts to help Venezuela "in achieving democracy."

Washington's support for Guaido led Maduro, who nominally retains support of the Venezuelan military, to close the US embassy and consulates and break diplomatic ties. US diplomats in Venezuela have until Saturday to leave the country, but Washington has refused to fully comply fully with the exit order. Guaido is instead urging the US diplomats to stay and keep the embassy's doors open.

Despite the diplomatic sparring, Maduro on Friday said Venezuela will continue to sell oil to the United States, which private consultants say provides the largest source of cash to his country's coffers. "If they buy our oil, we will sell oil," Maduro said. But the US Treasury Department warned that "commercial transactions by the Venezuelan Government, including those involving its state-owned enterprises and international reserves" must be consistent with Washington's recognition of Guaido.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- whose country is Venezuela's second-largest creditor and a military ally -- denounced US policy on Venezuela as "destructive." Spain pushed the EU to recognize Guaido's claims to the presidency if no new elections are held, while Germany said it may follow suit.

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