DAVOS, Switzerland: UN chief Antonio Guterres on Thursday (Jan 24) appealed for dialogue to stop Venezuela's political crisis spiralling out of control, after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president.
"What we hope is that dialogue can be possible, and that we avoid an escalation that would lead to the kind of conflict that would be a disaster for the people of Venezuela and for the region," he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The United States, Brazil and other countries on Wednesday endorsed Guaido's declaration in repudiation of President Nicolas Maduro, as more protests rocked the economically strapped country.
"Sovereign governments have the possibility to decide whatever they want," the UN secretary-general said on a Facebook Live broadcast from Davos.
"What we are worried (about) ... is the suffering of the people of Venezuela," he said.
In a statement, Guterres's office said he was "concerned over reports of casualties in the context of demonstrations and unrest in Venezuela" where fresh violence has killed at least 13 people this week, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict.
Guterres called for "a transparent and independent investigation of these incidents".
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also said she was "very worried" about the developments in Venezuela.
"We hope that there will be a peaceful solution," the former Chilean president told AFP in Davos.
Maduro has presided over a deepening economic crisis that has left millions in poverty as the oil-rich country faces shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.
Some 2.3 million people have fled since 2015, UN figures show, while the International Monetary Fund says inflation will hit a staggering 10 million percent this year.
The UN's World Food Programme has been shut out of Venezuela by Maduro's government, but is working in border areas to help people fleeing the country.
The situation is "heartbreaking", WFP chief David Beasley told AFP in Davos.
He said he hoped the UN agency would regain access to Venezuela to provide desperately-needed assistance, "regardless of what government is in place".
"We know that people are starving in Venezuela. We know that it is not isolated incidents of hunger in Venezuela. It is widespread," he said.
French energy giant Total, which has maintained a presence in Venezuela despite the turmoil of recent years, welcomed the apparent changes afoot.
"What is happening is probably, maybe, very good news for the people of Venezuela. We will see," Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne told the CNBC channel in Davos.