Russia has condemned foreign powers for backing a Venezuelan opposition leader who declared himself interim president, calling it a bid to “usurp power”.
Moscow said that the move violated international law and was a “direct path to bloodshed”.
Juan Guaidó declared himself interim leader on Wednesday and was recognised by the US and several other nations.
President Nicolás Maduro, who also won support from some countries, has broken off diplomatic relations with the US.
Mr Maduro took office in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez and was sworn in for a second term this month after elections last May that were marred by an opposition boycott and widespread claims of vote-rigging.
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- The country that has lost three million people
- Who is Juan Guaidó?
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Mr Guaidó is the head of the National Assembly and has cited articles 233and 333 of the constitution which allow him to assume interim power in the absence of the president. He argues Mr Maduro is not president because the elections are invalid.
How has the diplomatic spat flared?
There was a major difference of opinion after President Donald Trump responded to Mr Guaidó’s declaration by recognising him as the new head of state and calling on others to follow suit.
Seven South American nations, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Paraguay, as well as Canada, backed the call.
French President Emmanuel Macron stopped short of recognition, calling for democratic elections.
The UK said last May’s elections were not free or fair and that it was “totally unacceptable” for Mr Maduro to break off ties with the US.
Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba expressed support for Mr Maduro, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted: “My brother Maduro! Stand tall, we are standing by you.”
China, a major investor in Venezuela, said it opposed any outside interference.
Why was Russia so outspoken?
Moscow sees Venezuela as one of its closest allies in the region. It has lent billions of dollars and has backed its oil industry and its military. Russia has also taken part in military exercises in Venezuela.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We consider the attempt to usurp sovereign authority in Venezuela to contradict and violate the basis and principles of international law.
“Maduro is the legitimate head of state.”
A Russian foreign ministry statement said Mr Guaidó’s declaration was a “direct path to lawlessness and bloodshed”, adding: “Only Venezuelans have the right to determine their future.
“Destructive outside interference, especially in the current extremely tense situation, is unacceptable.”
Russia also warned that any US military interference would amount to “adventurism which is fraught with catastrophic consequences”.
What did Mr Trump say?
He was asked about military intervention and while he said he was not considering it, he added that “all options are on the table”.
In a statement, he described Mr Maduro’s leadership as “illegitimate”, adding: “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law.”
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It warned Mr Maduro tougher sanctions could be imposed.
The US has urged the Venezuelan military to back Mr Guaidó, but so far it has remained loyal to Mr Maduro.
What was President Maduro’s response?
He accused Washington of trying to govern Venezuela from afar and said the opposition was seeking to stage a coup.
“We’ve had enough interventionism, here we have dignity, damn it!” he said in a televised address from the presidential palace, the Miraflores, where his supporters gathered to back him on Wednesday.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino condemned Mr Guaidó’s call for the army to switch sides.
“The nation’s soldiers don’t accept a president imposed by obscure interests, nor one self-proclaimed outside of the law,” he tweeted.
Mr Maduro gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave the country but the US said the “former president” no longer had the authority to order them out.
Mr Maduro and his core supporters believe Venezuela’s problems are caused by US sanctions that have hampered the government by making it hard to restructure its debt.
The annual inflation rate reached 1,300,000% in the 12 months to November 2018, according to a study by the National Assembly.
How did Mr Guaidó’s declaration come about?
Thousands of Venezuelans attended a rally on Wednesday in support of Mr Guaidó.
He raised his right hand and said: “I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president,” vowing to lead a transitional government and hold free elections.
Venezuelan NGOs said that 14 people were shot dead during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Venezuela has been in economic freefall. Hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of basic items have driven millions of people from the country.
Mr Guaidó became president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly this month.
The opposition took power there after elections in 2015, but in 2017 Mr Maduro set up a separate body, the constituent assembly, which is filled with his supporters.
Both chambers are meeting and passing laws but the constituent assembly is the only one whose laws are being enacted by the government.