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Dueling Venezuela Leaders Dig in Defending Presidency Claims

Juan Guaido told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy

The Venezuelan opposition leader who has declared himself interim president vowed Friday he would remain on the streets until the South American country has a transitional government, while President Nicolas Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup.

In dueling press conferences, Juan Guaido urged followers to stage another mass protest next week while Maduro pushed his oft-repeated call for dialogue. Each man appeared ready to defend his claim to the presidency no matter the cost, with Guaido telling supporters that if he is arrested they should "stay the course" and peacefully protest.

But the standoff could set the scene for more violence and has plunged troubled Venezuela into a new chapter of political turmoil that rights groups say has already left more than two dozen dead as thousands take to the street demanding Maduro step down.

"They can cut a flower, but they will never keep spring from coming," Guaido to supporters Friday, alluding to a similar phrase from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Guaido's talk with reporters at a plaza in Caracas turned into a de facto rally as thousands gathered after hearing he would speak in public for the first time since taking a symbolic oath Wednesday proclaiming himself the nation's rightful leader. Maduro, meanwhile, spoke in the presidential palace before a room of journalists.

The Trump administration announced it was recognizing Guaido as president quickly after his oath, leading Maduro to announce that he was breaking all diplomatic ties with the United States.

Maduro is accusing the opposition of working with the U.S. to overthrow him. Though over a dozen nations as well as the Inter-American Development Bank are recognizing Guaido as president, Maduro still has the support of powerful, longtime allies like Russia and China and is vowing to defend his socialist rule.

"This is nothing more than a coup d'etat, ordered, promoted, financed and supported by the government of the United States," he said Friday. "They intend to put a puppet government in Venezuela, destroy the state and take colonial control of the country."

But he added that he was still willing to talk with the opposition even if he "had to go naked."

Both sides attempted dialogue last year, but it fell apart as Maduro pushed forward with an early election that the country's most popular opposition leaders were barred from running in.

On Friday, Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Latin America department, told the state RIA Novosti news agency that Moscow is ready to play mediator between Venezuela's government and the opposition. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, has called out the United States for what he said was its "unacceptable and destructive" moves.

The war of words is taking place as international concern over repression by state security forces during the days of political upheaval mounts.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet's office said Friday it has credible reports that security forces or members of pro-government armed groups have shot at least 20 people during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday and is calling for an investigation. The total figure is likely higher: The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict says 21 people were killed by gunfire in protests and looting on Wednesday and Thursday, on top of five deaths authorities confirmed Tuesday.

Those tallies indicate that at least 26 people have been killed. The Penal Forum human rights group says that 369 people have been detained since Monday.

"The international community is watching more closely than ever before, so Venezuelan security forces - and those commanding them - should know they will be held to account for any abuses," Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.

U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats are finding themselves caught in the crosshairs of the political melee. On Wednesday, Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. Hours later, Guaido contradicted that order and urged all embassy workers to stay. Washington said it would defy Maduro by keeping the embassy open but ordered all non-essential staff to leave.

On Friday morning, a caravan of black SUVs escorted a contingent of U.S. embassy workers and their families to the Caracas airport. They were later seen checking into an American Airlines flight, some traveling with babies and guarded by security personnel.

Maduro, meanwhile, has recalled all Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S., and ordered the nation's embassy and consulates there closed. Guaido, once again seeking to sidestep Maduro, has urged all Venezuelan consulate workers to stay in their U.S. posts.

Standing before a podium with the Venezuelan coat of arms, Guaido said Friday that he would release the text of proposed amnesty for military leaders this weekend and asked Venezuelans to share it with any officers they know. He also said he would press forward with ensuring the arrival of humanitarian aid promised by the United States.

The military is the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela and the armed forces' top brass has pledged its loyalty to Maduro, though security experts note that many within the lower-ranks are disgruntled over low wages diminished by hyperinflation.

Still, most consider it a long shot for Guaido to win the military's support.

"Stand on the side of the people," he urged the armed forces.

Maduro has not shown any hint he's ready to cede power, setting up a potentially explosive struggle with international ramifications. He called Guaido on Friday "an agent for the gringos in Venezuela," using a sometimes derogatory term for Americans. But he also said that he would be willing to talk with U.S. President Donald Trump and the opposition.

"I'm not anti-American," he said. "I'm anti-imperialist."

Guaido, in his remarks, also said he'd be willing to talk with any and all parties, but only if they are willing to move forward in restoring democracy. He didn't elaborate on what conditions might be necessary to embark on a fresh round of dialogue.

Followers in the crowd didn't react enthusiastically to the idea of more dialogue, but they did cheer and applaud when he said that the opposition would hold another big protest next week.

"There will be people on the street," Guaido clamored, "until we get freedom."

Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Manuel Rueda, Fabiola Sanchez and Joshua Goodman Caracas contributed.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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