Venezuela crisis: Maduro digs heels in as he launches 'largest ever military drills'

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Mr Maduro, 56, has faced calls to step aside in favour of 35-year-old political rival Juan Guaido, with US President Donald Trump turning the screw as he backed younger man who took a public oath to serve as interim president of the South American country on January 23. Since receiving Mr Trump’s support, Mr Guaido’s authority has been recognised by 50 countries, including many neighbouring nations as well as the European Union. But Mr Maduro, who has served as President since 2013, and who was controversially reelected last year amid widespread claims of voter fraud, said the nation “must prepare to defend its sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence” as he declared a round of military exercises at Guaicaipuro Fort in Miranda State.

He posted pictures on Twitter showing large crowds of men wearing military fatigues, as well as others showing him inspecting weapons against a backdrop of cheering soldiers.

Venezuela’s military announced it had started conducting exercises to “reinforce the country’s defensive capacity”. 

Mr Maduro described the drills, which are scheduled to finish on Friday, as the “most important’ in the country’s history and would become the largest it had ever held.

Venezuela has been in turmoil for for several years, with rocketing inflation rendering its currency, the Bolivar, practically worthless. 

The UN estimates there will be 5.3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants by the end of 2019.

Mr Maduro has rejected humanitarian aid as a US ploy to intervene in Venezuela, and the authorities have consequently blocked humanitarian aid from entering the country from neighbouring Colombia, a move Mr Guaido has described as “a crime against humanity”.

He added: “There are people responsible for this and the regime should know it.”

Claiming the people responsible were “almost genocidal”, he called for a march on Tuesday in memory of the 40 people who are estimated to have been killed since the start of disturbances against Mr Maduro’s rule on January 21.

He has also ruled out negotiations with Mr Maduro, vowing to do “whatever necessary” to “stop the usurpation” of power and “save lives”.

Mr Guaido has offered amnesty to any members of the armed forces who abandon Mr Maduro’s – but the military leadership remain loyal to the President, publicly at least.

In a joint analysis published by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies on January 25, Amanda Lapo, research analyst for defence and military analysis and Antonio Sampaio, research associate for conflict, security and development, said Mr Guaido’s chances of ousting his rival depended on internal factors, specifically his ability to win the backing of military commanders.

Their report states: “It is the response of Venezuela’s military to this move that matters most now and upon which the opposition’s hopes of a transition of power now rest.”

This offer may be attractive to the lower and middle ranks of the armed forces who are feeling the impact of Venezuela’s economic and social crisis. 

“But the top echelons of the armed forces continue to reap the rewards of their close association with Maduro’s regime, through access to both state resources and oil revenues, ensuring their desire to maintain the status quo and their loyalty to the government.”

Nevertheless, they added: “The clear regional shift against Maduro has provided energy and political backing to the opposition.

“If it can use this momentum to gain the support of Venezuela’s military, it will have a decisive advantage.”

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