Venezuela braced for rival protests as European deadline for Maduro to call election looms

Venezuela braced for rival protests as European deadline for Maduro to call election looms

Tens of thousands of protesters were set to pour onto the streets of Caracas on Saturday to back opposition leader Juan Guaido’s calls for early elections as international pressure increased on President Nicolas Maduro to step down.

Major European countries have set a Sunday deadline for Mr Maduro to call snap presidential elections. Failing that, they will join the United States in recognising National Assembly speaker Mr Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.

“Maduro’s tyranny must end and must end now,” US Vice President Mike Pence told a rally of exiled Venezuelans in Miami on the eve of the protest.

Mr Guaido’s call for a massive show of popular support coincides with a huge pro-Maduro demonstration.

The ruling Socialist party celebrates the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of Hugo Chavez, Mr Maduro’s deceased predecessor, on Saturday.

The “clear goal” of the march was “to accompany the ultimatum given by members of the European Union,” Mr Guaido said ahead of the march, which will begin outside the EU offices in eastern Caracas.

“We are going to stage the biggest march in the history of Venezuela and our continent,” he added.

The rival marches will take place in different districts of a tense Venezuelan capital. Mr Maduro’s supporters will concentrate in Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Caracas, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the EU offices.

Clashes last week around the country left some 40 people dead, according to the United Nations.

Chavez, the army officer whose oil-fueled spending raised millions of Venezuelans out of poverty, assumed office as Venezuela’s president February 2, 1999 at the head of a socialist movement.

His hand-picked successor, Mr Maduro, has presided over the oil-rich country’s economic collapse and is widely denounced as a dictator for ruthlessly cracking down on dissent amid chronic shortages of food and medicines.

Mr Guaido, 35, is trying to force the socialist leader from power so he can set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections.

The United States and a dozen Latin American countries rapidly recognised Mr Guaido after he declared himself acting president in a January 23 speech, posing a direct challenge to Mr Maduro’s authority.

European Parliament lawmakers recognised Mr Guaido on Thursday as the acting head of state.

And four major European powers – Britain, France, Germany and Spain – have said they will do so if Mr Maduro fails to call presidential elections by midnight on Sunday.

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