Venezuelans protest as Guaido declares 'greatest escalation of pressure'

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Troubled Venezuela has seen a spectacular drop in oil output

Troubled Venezuela has seen a spectacular drop in oil output (AFP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

Caracas (AFP) - Opposition supporters thronged the streets of Caracas and other cities on Saturday to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government, as massive blackouts and the collapse of water supplies further exacerbated a growing political crisis.

The United States meanwhile has stiffened its economic sanctions against the government, and one top US official on Saturday warned Venezuela's military that it must protect the rights of peaceful protesters.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido -- whose claim to be the legitimate interim president is supported by around 50 nations -- had called for a huge turnout in Caracas, announcing in a phone message to supporters "the greatest escalation of pressure we have seen in our history."

Pro-Guaido protests drew thousands in rallies across the country, while a pro-Maduro counter-demonstration in Caracas drew thousands of people who marched toward the Miraflores presidential palace.

"Together, permanently mobilized, let's keep defending national peace and independence; no more interference!" Maduro tweeted.

Two opposition deputies were detained during an anti-government protest in the western city of Maracaibo, but a few hours later, Guaido told a crowd of thousands in Caracas that the two -- Nora Bracho and Renzo Prieto -- had been released.

Deputy Elimar Diaz, who took part in the Maracaibo march, told AFP the protest there had encountered "brutal repression," including the firing of tear gas canisters from helicopters.

Diaz said people in the area had gone "days without electricity" amid "inhumane rationing" by the government.

Maduro has blamed US-backed sabotage for the massive blackouts that have deprived millions of power. The opposition blames a failure to maintain critical infrastructure.

- Crumbling economy -

Facing intense pressure at home and abroad, the Maduro government has sought to weaken Guaido's position.

The government has stripped him of his parliamentary immunity, authorized his prosecution for proclaiming himself acting president in January and has banned him from holding public office for 15 years.

Guaido said earlier this week he feared abduction by government agents.

The United States meanwhile kept up the international pressure on Maduro to step down.

Vice President Mike Pence on Friday announced fresh sanctions against 34 vessels belonging to Venezuela's state oil company and two companies that ship crude to Cuba.

He said in a speech in Houston that "the United States will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy."

"Those looking on should know this: all options are on the table. And Nicolas Maduro would do well not to test the resolve of the United States of America."

"This is only a first step," US national security advisor John Bolton tweeted on Saturday in reference to the sanctions.

He cautioned Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino in a separate tweet of his "constitutional responsibility to protect innocent civilians who are peacefully demonstrating," adding: "Do not let the Cubans or the 'colectivos' inflict violence against Venezuelan patriots."

The "colectivos" are armed paramilitary groups that support Maduro and are accused by the opposition of often resorting to violence.

- Security Council to meet -

Maduro enjoys important backing from his nation's military as well as from China and Russia as he clings to power.

The US and its allies view the socialist president as illegitimate since he took office in January for a second six-year term following elections seen as deeply flawed.

With its crude exports collapsing and international sanctions piling up, Venezuela's oil economy has crumbled. Malnutrition and disease are on the rise as living conditions plummet.

In the face of the worsening humanitarian crisis, the US has convened a session of the UN Security Council for Wednesday.

Since Venezuela's massive blackout of March 7, the country has been subject to repeated power cuts, with electricity being rationed outside of Caracas.

The blackouts have knocked out water supplies as well as transport and communications, forcing many people to trim their work days to six hours.

"We are tired," said Verony Mendez, 48, whose water was cut off two months ago.

"But we have to take to the streets because it is the only way to get these people out!"