Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's defense minister on Monday declared the army's loyalty to President Nicolas Maduro, who ordered troops into the streets ahead of a major protest by opponents trying to oust him.
Venezuela is bracing for what Maduro's opponents vow will be the "mother of all protests" Wednesday, after two weeks of clashes between police and demonstrators protesting against moves by the leftist leader and his allies to tighten their grip on power.
The center-right opposition has called on the military -- a pillar of Maduro's power -- to turn on the president amid an economic and political crisis that has triggered severe food shortages, riots and looting.
But Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the army "confirms its unconditional loyalty to the president."
He made the comment before thousands of rifle-carrying members of the pro-Maduro "Bolivarian militia," who cheered with fists raised at a rally outside the presidential palace.
Maduro thanked the army and the militia for their support and announced he planned to expand the latter civilian force to half a million armed members.
"Loyalty is repaid with loyalty," he said.
- Maduro rallies army -
The rally came hours after Maduro ordered the military into the streets to defend the leftist "Bolivarian revolution" launched by his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 1999.
"From the first reveille (on Monday morning), from the first rooster crow, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces will be in the streets... saying, 'Long live the Bolivarian revolution,'" he said Sunday night in a televised address.
He called for the militia to be in "permanent training" and "permanent deployment" to defend Venezuela against "any imperialist aggression" -- a thinly veiled reference to the United States.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles dismissed Maduro's announcement.
"The old fogey has announced one rifle for every militia member. He is more desperate than ever," Capriles wrote on Twitter.
"Venezuela does not want rifles, it wants food and medicine!"
- 'Repression' -
Venezuela has been rocked by unrest since March 30, when Maduro's camp moved to consolidate its control with a Supreme Court decision quashing the power of the opposition-majority legislature.
The court partly backtracked after an international outcry, but tension only rose further when authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles.
Five people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the ensuing protests as demonstrators clashed with riot police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
Non-government groups have accused the authorities of repression of protesters and of using firearms to put down the rallies.
Padrino Lopez on Monday blamed the violence on criminals, retorting that "action by the state to restore public order cannot be called repression."
- Major protest called -
Maduro's opponents have called for a massive protest Wednesday, a national holiday that marks the start of Venezuela's independence struggle in 1810.
The president's supporters have called a counter-demonstration the same day.
It is a touchy date in Venezuela, where Chavez and Maduro have built a politics of populist, left-wing nationalism around the fight for independence from colonial Spain and around the hero of the struggle, Simon Bolivar.
Eleven Latin American countries on Monday asked Venezuela to guarantee the "right to peaceful demonstration," lamenting deaths that have already occurred during the protests.
Maduro's Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez on Twitter called the statement from the 11 countries "political selectivity," accusing the group of endorsing "the violent vandalism of the opposition."
Maduro is fighting efforts to force him from power as Venezuela flounders through a crippling three-year recession and confronts the world's highest inflation rate.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, but the fall in global crude prices since 2014 has laid bare its overwhelming dependence on its chief export.
Lacking the oil dollars it once used to import nearly everything else, the country has been hit by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods like deodorant and toilet paper.
With some 165,000 troops and 25,000 reserves, the army controls production and distribution of basic foods.
Eleven of Maduro's 32 government ministers are current or retired military officers.