CARACAS: Clashes broke out between opposition supporters and Venezuela's armed forces in the capital Caracas on Wednesday (May 1) as May Day protests got underway with opposition leader Juan Guaido attempting to rally demonstrators against President Nicolas Maduro.
National Guard troops fired teargas at stone-throwing protesters attempting to block a highway close to the air base in eastern Caracas where Guaido had tried on Tuesday to spark a military uprising against Maduro.
A second day of clashes between opposition supporters and Maduro's security services came as the United States said it was prepared to take military action, if necessary, to stem the crisis in the South American nation.
In Tuesday's clashes one person was killed and dozens injured, according to human rights monitors.
Tensions in Venezuela have soared since Guaido, who heads the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to declare himself the acting president on Jan 23, claiming Maduro's re-election last year was illegitimate.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned Venezuela's authorities not to use deadly force against demonstrators, while the US and Russia accused each other of making the crisis worse, evoking Cold War confrontations of the past.
In a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Moscow of "destabilising" Venezuela.
'JOY' IN THE STREETS
Lavrov, in turn, charged that US interference was "destructive" and "in flagrant violation of international law."
Guaido rallied his supporters in Caracas in the Labor Day demonstrations, urging them to stay in the streets.
His appeal came despite the apparent failure the day before of a revolt by some soldiers and members of the Bolivarian National Guard who joined his side.
"There is nothing for workers to celebrate," Guaido told supporters in the oil-rich country suffering from hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages that have driven millions to flee.
"We're going to remain in the streets until we achieve freedom for the Venezuelan people.
"The regime will try to increase the repression. It will try to persecute me, to stage a coup d'etat," said Guaido, recognised by more than 50 countries as the country's interim president.
He said staggered industrial action would begin on Thursday, leading to a general strike.
Maduro, whose supporters staged their own march in Caracas, posted a message of support for them on Twitter.
"I'm receiving images of a huge display of joy spilling out over the streets of Caracas," he wrote.
Tuesday's events showed that "the insurrection, the coup and armed confrontation are not the way for our beloved Venezuela," Maduro said.
Maduro had congratulated the armed forces for having "defeated this small group that intended to spread violence through putschist skirmishes."
Accusing Guaido of attempting to stage a coup, he vowed, "This will not go unpunished."
Hours after the revolt by military officers appeared to be fizzling out, Pompeo told CNN he believed Maduro was ready to flee to ally Cuba before he was dissuaded by Russia - a claim Maduro later refuted as "a joke."
A senior Brazilian official said at least 25 Venezuelan troops had sought asylum at its Caracas embassy.
Venezuela's security forces number around 365,000 including military and police, as well as 1.6 million civilian reservists.
Pompeo said Wednesday that Washington wants a peaceful transfer of power but warned that US President Donald Trump is prepared to take military action if necessary.
"The president has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that's what's required, that's what the United States will do," Pompeo told Fox Business Network.
'LIVING THROUGH HELL'
Venezuela has suffered five years of recession marked by shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine, as well as failing public services, including water, electricity and transport.
"We're living through hell, without water, without electricity. I believe the people in the streets will be the straw that breaks the camel's back," a resident of western Caracas, Evelinda Villalobos, 58, told AFP.
The United Nations says a quarter of Venezuela's 30 million people need humanitarian aid, 3.7 million people are malnourished while another 2.7 million have fled the country's economic woes.
"Yesterday we saw soldiers recognizing our interim president. We have to stay in the streets," said Patricia Requena, 40. "I'll keep demonstrating as long as God allows me to."
Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, told AFP the US approach to Venezuela was "unhelpful and often counterproductive."
"The US is right to back Guaido in his battle against Maduro," said Shifter.
"But beyond being on the right side, the administration is making it harder, not easier, to achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela."
He added that Russia had "committed fewer self-inflicted wounds than the US and seems more skillful in advancing its own interests."