Maduro defies elections call
Venezuelan president oversees army display amid global pressure
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen a display of the army's Russian hardware, with anti-aircraft flak and tank rounds pounding a hillside to show military force and loyalty in the face of an international ultimatum for new elections.
Mr Maduro (56) is confronting an unprecedented challenge to his authority after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, citing a fraudulent election. Mr Guaido has won wide international support and offers amnesty to soldiers who join him.
White House National Security Adviser John Bolton warned against violence or intimidation of US diplomats in Venezuela or the opposition leader, saying such action would trigger a response from the United States.
"Any violence and intimidation against US diplomatic personnel, Venezuela's democratic leader, Juan Guiado (sic), or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response," Mr Bolton said in a Twitter post, also noting Cuba's support for Mr Maduro's paramilitary forces.
Mr Guaido has written to Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, to ask him not to release £1bn (€1.15bn) of gold to Mr Maduro, who has been attempting to repatriate the gold from the vaults since last year. The bullion in London makes up 15pc of Venezuela's foreign currency reserves.
In a letter, the 35-year-old said: "I am writing to ask you to stop this illegitimate transaction. If the money is transferred it will be used by the illegitimate and kleptocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro to repress and brutalise the Venezuelan people."
Israel has joined the countries backing Mr Guaido, and Donald Trump's administration said it had accepted Venezuelan opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as the country's diplomatic representative in the United States.
On Sunday, Mr Maduro watched a platoon of soldiers release volleys of Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun anti-aircraft fire and tank rounds at hillside targets.
Mr Maduro said the display showed the world he had the backing of the military, and that Venezuela's armed forces were ready to defend the country. Mr Maduro said Mr Guaido was taking part in a coup directed by Mr Trump's hardline policy advisers.
"Nobody respects the weak, cowards, traitors. In this world, what's respected is the brave, the courageous, power," Mr Maduro said.
"Nobody should even think of stepping on this sacred soil. Venezuela wants peace ... and to guarantee peace, we have to be prepared."
Next month, the military is planning larger exercises that Mr Maduro described as the "most important in the history of Venezuela".
The show of force was accompanied by a government publicity campaign online based on the slogan "Always Loyal, Never a Traitor", and followed a high-profile defection by the country's top military diplomat in the United States.
Mr Maduro has denounced an alleged conspiracy aimed at spreading rebellion in the army, saying thousands of messages were being sent to soldiers every day over WhatsApp and other social media platforms from neighbouring Colombia.
Mr Guaido also sent a message to the military, asking for support and ordering it not to repress civilians during an event in which supporters handed out copies of a proposed amnesty for people accused of crimes in the Maduro government.
"I order you not to shoot," he said. "I order you not to repress the people."
At a UN Security Council debate on Saturday, Russia and China strongly backed Mr Maduro and rejected calls by the United States, Canada, Latin American nations and European powers for early elections.
Russia and China are major creditors of Venezuela. Since the government of Mr Maduro's late mentor, Hugo Chavez, the Opec nation has invested heavily in Russian weaponry, including Sukhoi fighter jets.