Opposition leader Juan Guaido took a bold step to revive his movement to seize power in Venezuela, taking to the streets on Tuesday to call for a military uprising that drew quick support from the Trump administration and fierce resistance from forces loyal to socialist Nicolas Maduro.
The violent street battles that erupted in parts of Caracas were the most serious challenge yet to Mr Maduro’s rule.
And while the rebellion seemed to have garnered only limited military support, at least one high-ranking official announced he was breaking with Mr Maduro, in a setback for the embattled president.
In a Tuesday night appearance on national television, Mr Maduro declared that the opposition had attempted to impose an “illegitimate government” with the support of the United States and neighbouring Colombia.
He said Venezuela had been a victim of “aggression of all kinds”.
Meanwhile, Mr Guaido sought to keep the momentum going at the end of the day by releasing his own video message in which he pressed Venezuelans to take to the streets again on Wednesday.
The competing quests to solidify a hold on power capped a dramatic day that included a tense moment when several armoured vehicles ploughed into a group of anti-government demonstrators trying to storm the capital’s air base, hitting at least two protesters.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said the Trump administration was waiting for three key officials, including Mr Maduro’s defence minister and head of the supreme court, to act on what he said were private pledges to remove Mr Maduro. He did not provide details.
The stunning events began early Tuesday when Mr Guaido, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armoured crowd-control vehicles, released the three-minute video shot near the Carlota air base.
In a surprise, Leopoldo Lopez, Mr Guaido’s political mentor and the nation’s most prominent opposition activist, stood alongside him.
Detained in 2014 for leading a previous round of anti-government unrest, Mr Lopez said he had been released from house arrest by security forces adhering to an order from Mr Guaido.
“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” Mr Lopez declared.
As the two opposition leaders coordinated actions from an overpass, troops loyal to Mr Maduro fired tear gas from inside the adjacent air base.
A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Mr Guaido at a plaza a few blocks from the disturbances.
A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind, lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the air base and setting a government bus on fire.
Amid the mayhem, several armoured utility vehicles careened over a berm and drove at full speed into the crowd.
Two demonstrators, lying on the ground with their heads and legs bloodied, were rushed away on a motorcycle as the vehicles sped away dodging fireballs thrown by the demonstrators.
“It’s now or never,” said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna worn by the few dozen insurgent soldiers.
The head of a medical centre near the site of the street battles said doctors were treating 50 people, about half of them with injuries suffered from rubber bullets.
At least one person had been shot with live ammunition. Venezuelan human rights group Provea said a 24-year-old man was shot and killed during an anti-government protest in the city of La Victoria.
Later on Tuesday, Mr Lopez and his family sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas, where another political ally has been holed up for over a year. They later moved to the Spanish embassy.
There were also reports that 25 troops who had been with Mr Guaido fled to Brazil’s diplomatic mission.
Amid the confusion, Mr Maduro tried to project an image of strength, saying he had spoken to several regional military commanders who reaffirmed their loyalty.
“Nerves of steel!” he said in a message posted on Twitter.
Flanked by top military commanders, Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez condemned Mr Guaido’s move as a “terrorist” act and “coup attempt” that was bound to fail like past uprisings.
“Those who try to take Miraflores with violence will be met with violence,” he said on national television, referring to the presidential palace where hundreds of government supporters, some of them brandishing firearms, had gathered in response to a call to defend Mr Maduro.
But in a possible sign that Mr Maduro’s inner circle could be fracturing, the head of Venezuela’s secret police penned a letter breaking ranks with the embattled leader.
Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the head of Venezuela’s feared SEBIN intelligence agency, wrote a letter to the Venezuelan people saying that while he has always been loyal to Mr Maduro it is now time to “rebuild the country”.
He lamented that corruption has become so rampant that “many high-ranking public servants practice it like a sport”.
“The hour has arrived for us to look for other ways of doing politics,” he wrote. “To build the homeland our children and grandchildren deserve.”
The letter circulating on social media was confirmed by a senior US official. He said the general’s wife is currently outside the country.
Mr Guaido said he called for the uprising to restore Venezuela’s constitutional order, broken when Mr Maduro was sworn in earlier this year for a second term following elections boycotted by the opposition and considered illegitimate by dozens of countries.
“The armed forces have taken the right decision,” said Mr Guaido. “With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history.”