A Venezuelan air force general has defected from the government of president Nicolas Maduro and urged people to join mass street protests across the country, as the president called for early parliamentary elections.
Francisco Yanez, who is believed to be the highest ranking officer to desert the president, claimed in a video posted on social media that 90 per cent of the armed forces “are not with the dictator”.
“The transition to democracy is imminent,” he added, referring to opposition leader Juan Guaido as his president.
His announcement was met by a tweet from the air force describing him as a “traitor” who “kneels before imperial pretentions”.
As the senior general defected, Mr Maduro called for a election after his disputed victory last year, as he attempts to hold on to power.
"You want elections? You want early elections? We are going to have parliamentary elections," Mr Maduro told a pro-government rally in Caracas.
"There is no dictatorship in Venezuela, nor will there be," he added.
The comments came as Mr Guaido called on "blocks" of the military to defect from Mr Maduro's administration and "get on the side of the Venezuelan people."
"We don't just want you to stop shooting at protesters," Mr Guaido said. "We want you to be part of the reconstruction of Venezuela."
He also called for people to take to the streets on Saturday for “the biggest march against the regime in the history of Venezuela”.
“We’ll see you in the streets, Venezuela,” he said in a video message posted on Twitter. “We’re doing well, we’re doing very well.”
On Saturday morning protesters gathered across the country to demand Maduro’s resignation and a transitional government that will hold new elections.
“We are around the corner from freedom,” said Xiomara Espinoza, 59, banging on a pot and wearing a Venezuelan flag. She said 23 of her nieces and nephews have left Venezuela due to the economic crisis.
The rally coincides with one held by Mr Maduro to commemorate the 20th anniversary of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s first inauguration as president in 1999.
Mr Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term on 10 January after disputed elections last year, has accused Mr Guaido of staging a US-directed coup.
MG Rodrigo Guerrero Contreras @ArtilleroFANB y los hombres y mujeres que lo acompañan en su gestión, rechazan la actitud desleal y traidora del oficial Francisco Yánez en contra del juramento de lealtad a la Patria y a nuestro Pdte. CJ @NicolasMaduro #LealesSiempreTraidoresNunca pic.twitter.com/Pb1SS2cFTL
— CONGEFANB (@CONGEFANB)
He is backed by several countries including Russia, China and Iran but is facing increasing pressure after Washington announced fresh sanctions on the state-owned oil company PDVSA on Tuesday.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani denounced the US for trying to topple Mr Maduro during a meeting with the Venezuelan ambassador on Saturday, according to the state news agency.
“The Americans are basically against all popular revolutions and independent countries and seek world hegemony by suppressing them,” Mr Rouhani said.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has also made clear his opposition to “outside interference” and criticised foreign minister Jeremy Hunt for demanding further sanctions.
“The future of Venezuela is a matter for Venezuelans,” he tweeted on Friday. ”There needs to be dialogue and a negotiated settlement to overcome the crisis.”
Mr Guaido has been recognised as the interim president by the US, EU and several South American countries including Brazil and Argentina.
Venezuela, which is heavily reliant on oil exports, continues to suffer from hyperinflation, shortages of goods and mass migration of its citizens to neighbouring countries.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters