State Department orders departure of non-emergency personnel from Venezuela

With Venezuela convulsed by crisis, Trump's hawks take dramatic turn

Maduro issued his order before the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), where magistrates and representatives of other government branches declared their support for him after the head of the opposition-controlled Parliament, Juan Guaido, proclaimed himself to be Venezuela's interim president and received Washington's immediate support.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Colombian leader Ivan Duque said Maduro should "step aside and let the Venezuelan people be free".

It was also reported that Russian military contractors had flown into Venezuela to beef up security for Mr Maduro. Rank-and-file troops struggling to put food on the table may not share their steadfast loyalty, but the odds of a significant faction defecting and recognizing Guaido are slim, several current and former military officers said.

That was quickly quashed and officials said 27 people were arrested but it sparked a wave of smaller protests that were met by security forces using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro's government. Chavez as a young army commander staged a botched coup in 1992 and a decade later was briefly forced from power himself.

In total, more than three million Venezuelans have left the country in the past three years. "It could get pretty ugly", said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs in Washington.

"In the days ahead, you will face an important test", he said in a message directed toward the military. Moscow has continued to support Maduro even as he oversaw a severe economic decline that provoked a humanitarian and regional refugee crisis. In that environment, it becomes highly unlikely that a fracture among the top leadership would occur, though there are signs of cracks amid rank-and-file troops.

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More than 20 national guardsmen broke with Maduro on Monday, seized an arsenal and declared themselves in rebellion, but were quelled by other units.

Perhaps curiously, the military has not activated the emergency protocol known as "Plan Zamora" that has been used during previous unrest and gives troops authority to repress and control mass demonstration. From there, one of the mercenaries called and said that they had been deployed to Caracas.

Officials warned that "the USA government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in Venezuela due to extremely limited infrastructure and poor security conditions", calling for State Department employees and their families to return home.

Crucially, he has consistently retained the support of the military high command.

A third source close to the Russian contractors also told Reuters there was a contingent of them in Venezuela, but could not say when they arrived or what their role was. "They've stopped being the moral compass".

Guaido spoke in front of a rally of supporters in the Chacao neighborhood in the capital Caracas and took questions from local and worldwide media outlets.

The crisis in Venezuela marks a rare moment of focus on Latin America for the Pentagon, which has been consumed by insurgent wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan for almost two decades and is now seeking to reorient toward China.

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