CARACAS: International clamour for snap elections in Venezuela intensified on Monday (Feb 4) as European powers recognised opposition chief Juan Guaido as interim leader after President Nicolas Maduro rejected their ultimatum to call presidential polls.
Spain, Britain and France were among 15 EU nations to side with Guaido on Monday. But key Maduro ally Russia slammed European "interference" in the oil-rich but impoverished Latin American country, saying it was an attempt "to legitimise usurped power."
Guaido thanked each EU country in turn on Twitter "for supporting all Venezuelans in this struggle we undertake to rescue our nation's democracy, freedom and justice."
Claiming his legitimacy from the constitution, the 35-year-old National Assembly leader shocked the world when he proclaimed himself interim president on Jan 23, setting up a tense standoff with Maduro.
Both men headed rival massive street rallies in Caracas on Saturday. Despite Guaido's pleas for their support, the armed forces - the country's key power - have remained loyal to Maduro.
The opposition leader has expressed confidence he will win the backing of senior officers after a top air force general publicly sided with him on Saturday.
Guaido is trying to force from power the socialist leader - labelled a dictator by the West and his Latin American neighbours after presiding over Venezuela's economic collapse - aiming to set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections.
The US and other countries have also pledged humanitarian aid for Guaido's administration, though it remains to be seen where and how it can enter the country without the military's support.
And it was unclear how he could fund and operate an interim presidency with Maduro refusing to budge.
On Monday, he accused Maduro of trying to illicitly transfer up to US$1.2 billion from public coffers to a bank in Uruguay.
He said Maduro was seeking to move the money from the Venezuelan Economic and Social Development Bank to its branch in Uruguay and called on the Montevideo government "not to lend itself to stealing".
After announcing Madrid's recognition of Guaido, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he wanted Spain to spearhead a plan of humanitarian aid for Venezuela in the European Union and United Nations.
A defiant Maduro reserved particular anger for Sanchez.
"No-one puts an ultimatum on Venezuela, neither you Mr Pedro Sanchez nor anyone else in the world."
He said the Spanish leader was "a wimp who puts himself at the service of Washington's warmongering."
France, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg also recognised Guaido. Ten EU countries have yet to announce their position.
The cascade of support from EU countries came after the passing of a Sunday deadline initially set by seven EU states for Maduro to call presidential elections or they would recognise Guaido.
Maduro flatly rejected the election demands in an interview with Spanish television, insisting he would not be "cornered" by ultimatums or "cave in to pressure" from those calling for his departure.
Venezuela's foreign ministry hit back on Monday, saying it would "review" its diplomatic relations with EU states over their recognition of Guaido, saying they were effectively supporting plans for a coup.
Maduro began a new term in office last month after 2018 elections that were branded invalid by the opposition.
He has said he is only willing to call new elections to the opposition-held National Assembly.
However, he supported plans for a meeting of Latin American and EU states in a "Contact Group" in Montevideo on Thursday.
At the beginning of a week of intense diplomacy, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged US$40 million in humanitarian aid for Venezuelans as he hosted a meeting of the Lima Group of nations in Ottawa.
Maduro has rejected all offers of aid, dismissing it as the thin edge of a wedge of US military involvement.
At the weekend, Guaido called on the army to allow in humanitarian aid from the United States via neighbouring Colombia and Brazil.
He says up to 300,000 people are "at risk of death" in Venezuela for want of humanitarian assistance.
Under Maduro's stewardship, oil-dependent Venezuela has plunged into an economic crisis, suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
On Monday, oil prices rose to their highest level yet this year on European markets on the back of the crisis in Venezuela.
US President Donald Trump warned that military intervention remains "an option" for dealing with the crisis in Venezuela.
On Sunday, Maduro addressed troops on military exercises, calling on them for "maximum cohesion".
Tens of thousands of people turned out Saturday for competing shows of support for Guaido and for Maduro.
Guaido has called for a new demonstration on Feb 12 and another protest to push for the entry of aid.
Forty people were killed in clashes with security forces in a week of protests coinciding with Guaido's self-proclamation as acting leader, with hundreds more arrested, according to the United Nations.