Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Tuesday called for a military uprising to oust President Nicolás Maduro and armed factions clashed at a protest outside a Caracas air base as the country hit a new crisis point.
Reuters witnesses said several dozen mostly young armed men in military uniform accompanying Guaidó exchanged gunfire with soldiers acting in support of Maduro outside the La Carlota air base but the opposition did not appear to be about to take power by force.
Guaidó, in a video posted on Twitter earlier on Tuesday morning, said he had begun the "final phase" of his campaign to topple Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the military to back him to end Maduro's "usurpation."
Around three hours after his announcement, there was no sign of any other military activity. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Security forces earlier had fired tear gas at Guaidó as hundreds of civilians had joined the group, the witnesses said.
"We reject this coup movement, which aims to fill the country with violence," said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino.
He said the armed forces remained "firmly in defense of the national constitution and legitimate authorities," and that all military units across Venezuela "report normality" in their barracks and bases.
The move was Guaidó's boldest effort yet to convince the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks the support he says he has. It might also encourage the authorities, which have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.
The United States is among some 50 countries that recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's president, and has imposed sanctions to try to dislodge Maduro.
Oil prices topped $73, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by US sanctions and an economic crisis.
President 'has been briefed'
US President Donald Trump "has been briefed and is monitoring the ongoing situation," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. The White House declined to comment on whether the administration had been consulted or had advance knowledge of what Guaidó was planning.
US national security adviser John Bolton appeared to back Guaidó's actions on Tuesday. "The FANB must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people. It should stand by the National Assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy," Bolton tweeted, referring to the FANB armed forces.
A former US official said that while it was unclear whether Guaidó's efforts would touch off a broader military uprising against Maduro, it appeared aimed at building momentum toward Wednesday's May Day street protests and making that a turning point.
Conservative Republicans in Washington welcomed the reports from Venezuela. Senator Marco Rubio, who has worked on Venezuela policy with the Trump administration, took to Twitter to urge Venezuelans to take to the streets: "Do not allow this moment to slip away. It may not come again," he said.
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez tweeted that the government was confronting a small group of "military traitors" seeking to promote a coup.
Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, a legislative body that acts in support of the government, said the opposition had not been able to take over the air base. He urged Maduro's backers to rally at the presidential palace in Caracas to support him.
Guaidó, in the video on his Twitter account, was accompanied by men in military uniform and opposition politician Leopoldo López, who has been placed under house arrest.
"The national armed forces have taken the correct decision, and they are counting on the support of the Venezuelan people," Guaidó said.
Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro's re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.
He has been traveling outside the capital Caracas in recent weeks to try to put pressure on Maduro to step down.
Anti-Maduro protests are planned for Wednesday, including what Guaidó has said will be "the largest march in Venezuela's history," part of what he calls the "definitive phase" of his effort to take office in order to call fresh elections.
But Maduro, for his part, has appeared to retain control of state institutions and the loyalty of senior military officers.
He has called Guaido a US-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaidó of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaidó openly violated earlier this year.
Last week, Guaidó said his congressional ally — opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro — had been detained, and that 11 members of his team had been summoned to appear before the Sebin intelligence agency.
López, seen with Guaidó, appeared to have left his home for the first time since being placed under house arrest in 2017, after three years in jail.
"I have been freed by soldiers on the side of the constitution and President Guaidó," he tweeted. "All of us have to mobilize. It's time to win our freedom."
A soldier in the group with Guaidó, who identified himself just as Rivas, denied government accusations that they had been tricked into backing Guaidó.
"We're all afraid," he told Reuters, "but we had to do it."
Spain, instrumental in setting the European Union line, said that, although it considered Guaidó the legitimate leader of Venezuela, it did not support a military coup and wanted to see elections.
Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick of Reuters reported from Caracas.