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Guaido calls for new protests in Venezuela, Pope fears bloodbath

CARACAS: Venezuela’s self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido has called for two new protests, in an effort to push the military to turn against leader Nicolas Maduro as Pope Francis warned on Monday of a possible “bloodbath” in the crisis-wracked South American country.

In a video posted on Twit­ter, the 35-year-old opposition leader Guaido annou­nced a two-hour strike on Wednesday “to demand that the armed forces side with the people”.

Millions of Venezuelans have been left in poverty or fled the country due to an economic crisis, marked by hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities, began in 2014.

The head of the opposition-controlled National As­­­­sembly said a second de­­monstration, on Saturday, would be a “big national and international rally to back the support of the Eu­­ropean Union and the ultimatum” from Britain, Fra­nce, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands that they would recognise Guaido as interim president unless Maduro calls elections by Feb 3.

Speaking after a trip to Panama, Pope Francis said he was afraid the escalating political crisis in Venezuela would descend into “a bloodbath”. He had previously called on both sides to find a “just and peaceful solution”.

While some member nations have backed Guaido, the EU was more vague, saying it would take “further actions” if elections were not called in the coming days, including the issue of recognition of the country’s “leadership”.

Australia, meanwhile, said it “recognises and supports” Guaido as interim president pending elections. And Italy has called for “a rapid return to democratic legitimacy”.

The United States separately warned there would be a “significant response” if US diplomats, Guaido or the opposition-controlled National Assembly were targeted with violence and intimidation.

Maduro, 56, so far has not budged from his position, telling CNN Turk: “No one can give us an ultimatum.” He retains the backing of Russia and China, as well as Turkey.

An NGO, the Venezuelan Observatory on Social Con­flict, said 29 people were killed and more than 350 arrested in clashes with security forces last week.

Appeals to the military

Encouraged by the international support for his cause, Guaido is on a mission to weaken the military’s support of Maduro, which has been essential to keeping him in power since 2013.

His appeals have included promises of amnesty, and mass protests against Maduro, who has presided over a collapse of the economy and a severe humanitarian crisis, with shortages of food and medicine.

Supporters circulated copies of amnesty measures approved by the National Assembly to members of the military on Sunday, but some soldiers burned or ripped up the document.

Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, Army Colonel Jose Luis Silva, switched his sup-port to Guaido in a video that called on his bro-thers in arms to follow his lead.

Maduro appeared at a military exercise in the state of Carabobo on Sunday where he called for “union, discipline and cohesion” to defeat what he called an “attempted coup d’etat”.

“Traitors never, loyal always,” he exhorted the military audience.

Thus far, the military has backed the leftist regime, which was ushered into power 20 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, but there have been some signs of unrest.

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