Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó has warned the army of its responsibilities after soldiers blocked a key border bridge, sparking demands from the US to allow access for desperately needed humanitarian aid.
Mr Guaidó said in an interview on Colombian radio that the army had to choose between "a dictatorship that does not have an iota of humanity, or to side with the constitution" from which he takes his legitimacy.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Venezuela's military was deliberately blocking the aid with trucks and shipping containers "under Mr Maduro's orders".
"The Maduro regime must LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE," Mr Pompeo said in a tweet.
The Venezuelan people desperately need humanitarian aid. The U.S. & other countries are trying to help, but #Venezuela’s military under Maduro's orders is blocking aid with trucks and shipping tankers. The Maduro regime must LET THE AID REACH THE STARVING PEOPLE. #EstamosUnidosVE pic.twitter.com/L4ysYJaM6H— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) February 6, 2019
Mr Guaidó claims that up to 300,000 people face death if the aid is not delivered, following years of economic crisis and shortages of basic food and medicines.
Tanker trucks and shipping containers were moved into position late on Tuesday on the Tienditas bridge, a key crossing point on the border with Colombia.
The 35-year-old National Assembly chief - who stunned Venezuelans when he proclaimed himself president on 23 January - is trying to force Mr Maduro from power, set up a transitional government and hold new presidential polls.
He has claimed legitimacy from the constitution as National Assembly leader, on the grounds that Mr Maduro's re-election last May, boycotted by most of the opposition, was "illegitimate."
Venezuela's powerful military - which despite a few defections has remained loyal to Mr Maduro - is seen as key to the outcome of the socialist leader's power struggle with his young rival.
In a bid to tip the balance, the US said it was prepared to exempt Caracas' army top brass from punitive sanctions if they recognised Mr Guaidó.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton said Washington "will consider sanctions off-ramps for any Venezuelan senior military officer that stands for democracy and recognises the constitutional government of President Juan Guaidó".
"If not, the international financial circle will be closed off completely," Mr Bolton said on Twitter, urging the officers to "make the right choice."
Mr Guaido has been recognised by more than 40 countries since declaring himself interim president on 23 January.
Yesterday, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that he supports Mr Guaidó, "in order for him to call for free, fair and democratic presidential elections".
However, several countries including Italy and Greece have so far blocked an EU bid for tougher action against Nicolás Maduro's socialist regime.
Mr Guaidó held talks with EU representatives in Caracas yesterday "to consolidate their support for the democratic transition" adding that he would send a delegation to holdout state Italy to present his "action plan to relaunch democracy".
Mr Maduro disclosed on Monday that he sent Pope Francis a letter seeking help in mediating the country's crisis. The pope told journalists on Tuesday that this would require agreement from both the government and the opposition.
Mr Guaidó backed the idea yesterday, saying the Argentine pope could bring his "great moral authority" to bear on Mr Maduro to convince him to leave power.
Mr Maduro, who is supported by Russia, China, Turkey, Cuba and Iran, has refused all humanitarian aid shipments to Venezuela, which he says would open the way to allow a US military invasion.
He dismissed the need for aid yesterday as a "political show".
"Imperialism does not help anyone in the world," he told Russia Today.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was doubling its resources to cope with the crisis, where food and medicine shortages have pushed 2.3 million people to flee since 2015.
Mr Maduro, 56, has repeatedly accused the United States of fomenting a coup. And he called for the collection of ten million signatures against what he called "Trump's interventionist action".
The US, which has not ruled out a military intervention in crisis-wracked Venezuela, was the first to recognise his rival as acting president, followed by a dozen Latin American countries.
Latin American and EU states have formed a "Contact Group" on Venezuela which will meet in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo today.
Russia has slammed what it called interference in the oil-rich but now poor Latin American country, saying it was an attempt to "legitimise usurped power."
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the EU of trying to "topple the government by violence and ruse".
Mr Guaidó has nevertheless ramped up pressure on the regime with a series of mass protests, the next of which is scheduled for 12 February.
His fledgling alternative administration will hold talks in Washington on 14 February on responding to "the largest hemispheric humanitarian crisis in modern history".