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Maduro orders US diplomats to get out of Venezuela over opposition support

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Venezuala's President Nicolas Maduro has given US diplomats three days to leave the country after Donald Trump backed the country's opposition leader as the "interim president".

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro announced on Wednesday he was breaking off diplomatic ties with the United States after counterpart Donald Trump acknowledged opposition leader Juan Guaido as the South American country's "interim president."

"I've decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist government of the United States," said Maduro to thousands of cheering supporters in Caracas.

"Get out! Leave Venezuela, here there's dignity, damn it," he said, giving the US delegation 72 hours to quit the country.

Trump described hard-left President Nicolas Maduro as "illegitimate" and said that the National Assembly, headed by Guaido, is "the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people."

Trump's support for Guaido came shortly after the opposition leader declared himself "acting president" during a mass demonstration against Maduro.

Anti-government protests 

At least four people died in overnight clashes in Venezuela as opposition supporters and regime loyalists prepared for rival rallies Wednesday, in the wake of a failed military mutiny against President Nicolas Maduro.

A 16-year-old who suffered "a firearm injury during a demonstration" in the capital Caracas was among the dead, the Social Conflict Observatory said.

Much of the unrest took place in Bolivar State that borders Brazil. Police said three deaths occurred during looting in the state capital Bolivar City while a statue of socialist revolutionary leader Hugo Chavez was torched by dozens of protesters in the town of San Felix.

Thousands of opposition supporters, rallying behind parliament president Juan Guaido, began assembling during mid-morning in the capital.

"We're marching so Guaido can be proclaimed president. We don't want the usurper Maduro. We're here to restore democracy," Argenis Ramos, a 32-year-old teacher, told AFP in the east of Caracas.

Government supporters, also gathering in their thousands, denounced what they see as an attempted coup orchestrated by Washington.

National Assembly president Juan Guaidó who organised the opposition march.
National Assembly president Juan Guaidó who organised the opposition march.
AAP

Yelitze Pariata, 47, who lives in free government accommodation in central Caracas, said she wanted to "march in peace to support the president and to show the world that Chavism is united."

Shops, schools and businesses remained closed while there was little traffic on the roads.

Trouble had been expected with Venezuela's government ominously predicting there would be violence against opposition protesters.

"We leave the violence to others," said Guaido, the driving force behind the opposition protest, in reply.

The demonstration "is about reuniting as a people to tell the world about the steps we're going to take to end the usurpation, to achieve a transitional government and a free election," he added.

Trouble brewing

Guaido, 35, called for the demonstration earlier this month after Maduro was sworn in for a second term despite objections from both the opposition and large sections of the international community.

Maduro won snap elections in May that were boycotted by the opposition and dismissed as a fraud by the European Union, the United States and many Latin American countries.

The opposition protest aims to support Guaido's bid to set up a transitional government ahead of potential new elections.

He received backing on Tuesday from US Vice President Mike Pence, whose country has sanctioned top regime figures.

Maduro responded by accusing the US of trying to engineer a coup while his right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello, insisted that opposition efforts would be in vain. "The only transition is to socialism," he said.

US Senator Marco Rubio warned of manipulation by Venezuela's intelligence service, urging them to "reconsider the plan they have for (Wednesday) before it's too late."

Trouble has been brewing since Monday when a mutiny by a group of soldiers was quickly put down, with 27 people arrested.

They had taken over a command post in the north of Caracas and released a video calling on people to take to the streets.

Pro-Maduro protesters attend a rally to support the Venezuelan President in Caracas, Venezuela on 23 January 2019.
Pro-Maduro protesters attend a rally to support the Venezuelan President in Caracas, Venezuela on 23 January 2019.
EFE

Although they surrendered, many people answered their call and at least 30 small anti-Maduro protests broke out across Caracas. Police used tear gas in some areas to disperse demonstrators.

Organization of American States general secretary Luis Almagro posted a sharp rebuke on Twitter Wednesday of the "repression" of opposition demonstrators, linking to a video showing police arresting an activist.

Venezuela's Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez claimed the mutiny was a ruse to steal weapons to give to opposition activists.

 'Historic appointment' 

The National Assembly has been impotent since 2017 when the Supreme Court, dominated by regime loyalists, stripped it of its powers.

These are the first mass rallies since 125 people died in the streets between April and July, 2017.

Anti-Maduro protesters attend a rally to protest against the Venezuelan President in Caracas, Venezuela on 23 January 2019.
Anti-Maduro protesters attend a rally to protest against the Venezuelan President in Caracas, Venezuela on 23 January 2019.
EFE

Guaido insists he has the constitution on his side but acknowledges he needs the backing of the 365,000-strong military, and has offered an amnesty to any personnel who disavow the president.

Monday's mutiny gave a hint of divisions in the armed forces. NGO Citizen Control says around 180 soldiers were arrested last year for conspiring against the government, while 4,000 deserted the National Guard.

Public discord has been provoked by Venezuela's worsening economic crisis. Poverty has been on the increase as people face shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.

About 2.3 million people have fled the crisis since 2015, according to the United Nations, while those left behind face failing public services including water, electricity and transport.

A crash in the price of crude in 2014 was the catalyst for Venezuela's meltdown, and oil production has declined to barely a third of the level a decade ago.

At the same time, inflation has soared, and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will reach 10 million percent this year.

Source AFP - SBS

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