Some US diplomats in Venezuela have headed for Caracas airport amid a political power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and an opposition leader who has declared himself interim leader.
A letter from a US embassy security officer requesting a police escort for a caravan of 10 vehicles was leaked earlier in the day and published on social media by a journalist for state-owned TV network Telesur. Its authenticity was confirmed by a US source.
A defiant Mr Maduro called all Venezuelan diplomats home from the US and closed its embassy in Washington on Thursday, a day after ordering all US diplomats out of the country by the weekend.
That followed President Donald Trump’s decision to support the claim to power by opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Washington has refused to comply with Mr Maduro’s order but has ordered non-essential staff to leave the country, citing security concerns.
The Trump administration said Mr Maduro’s order is not legal because the US no longer recognises him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,” Mr Maduro said in an address broadcast live on state TV. “You must fulfil my order from the government of Venezuela.”
The diplomats are likely to leave Caracas on one of two daily flights to Miami by American Airlines, the last-remaining US carrier to serve Venezuela after Delta and United Airlines pulled out in 2017 amid a political crisis that has forced millions to flee the country.
Backed by Venezuela’s military, Mr Maduro has refused to show any hint he is ready to cede power, setting up a potentially explosive struggle.
Mr Guaido is expected to show up for a news conference later in Caracas amid speculation he could be arrested.
The 35-year-old legislator’s whereabouts have been a mystery since he was symbolically sworn in on Wednesday before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, promising to uphold the constitution and rid Venezuela of Mr Maduro’s rule.
Speaking from an undisclosed location, Mr Guaido told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Mr Maduro and his allies if they help return Venezuela to democracy.
“Amnesty is on the table,” said Mr Guaido, who weeks earlier was named head of the opposition-controlled congress. “Those guarantees are for all those who are willing to side with the constitution to recover the constitutional order.”
Canada, much of Latin America and many countries in Europe have also thrown their support behind Mr Guaido.
Mr Trump promised to use the “full weight” of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.
Mr Maduro has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behaviour by opponents and has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for his government.
China’s Foreign Ministry called on the US to stay out of the crisis, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned the US against any military intervention in Venezuela.
Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Russian Federation Council, called Mr Guaido’s declaration “an attempted coup” backed by the US.
Russia has been propping up Mr Maduro with arms and loans. He visited Moscow in December seeking political and financial support. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela 65 billion dollars in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than 20 billion dollars.