Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó has called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest at nationwide power cuts.
He also told followers to prepare for a final push to try to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro.
The power cuts started on Monday and have hit hospitals, public transport, water and other services, worsening a national economic crisis.
Mr Maduro blamed the blackouts on sabotage by the opposition and the US.
But the opposition argues that two decades of underinvestment and corruption by Venezuela’s socialist government as the cause.
“The time has come to agitate in every state, in every community, to get water back, get electricity back, get gas back,” Mr Guaidó told a rally in the capital Caracas. “The light has gone out, we cannot remain as passive actors,” he said.
He told supporters the protests would take place on Saturday, but gave no further details.
Mr Guaidó said that preparations were being made for a mass mobilisation – dubbed Operation Freedom – to try to force Mr Maduro to step down. The event is intended to culminate in a huge march through Caracas.
No date has been set but Mr Guaidó said a rehearsal of the operation would be held on 6 April. He promised to travel across Venezuela to help preparations.
Mr Guaidó, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim leader on 23 January, saying Mr Maduro’s re-election last May was illegitimate.
Blackouts worsen crisis
Caracas was first plunged into darkness on Monday. Power was restored four hours later, before a second blackout struck. The government told workers and students to stay at home as the power cuts continued.
Power returned to about half the country’s 24 states late on Tuesday, only to fail again on Wednesday morning.
Earlier this month, a days-long nationwide power cut sparked looting and desperation across the country. “I think this is going to be worse than the first blackout,” said Julio Barrios, an accountant in Caracas.
“A lot of people want to work but there’s no transportation and if there’s nobody working the country will be paralysed,” Mr Barrios added.
Nestor Carreno said he had been forced to close his pizzeria in Caracas because of the cuts.
“Food stocks are starting to rot. There’s no water. The transport virtually doesn’t work. There’s no means of communication,” he said.
The government has said it is battling to restore supplies and blamed the cuts on opposition “sabotage” and “terrorism”, without presenting any evidence for those claims.
Trump doesn’t rule out military action
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump called on Russia to withdraw military personnel from Venezuela, after two Russian air force planes landed outside Caracas on Saturday.
Mr Trump was speaking after a meeting in Washington with Fabiana Rosales, Mr Guaidó’s wife.
“Russia has to get out,” Mr Trump said, adding that “all options” were open to ensure it removed its soldiers.
The Kremlin has long been an ally of Venezuela, lending the South American nation billions of dollars and backing its oil industry and military. Russia has also strongly opposed US moves to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.
Meanwhile, the UN appealed to Mr Maduro and Mr Guaidó to end the political wrangling that is keeping humanitarian aid out of the country, the New York Times reported.
A confidential report sent to both sides apportioned no blame for Venezuela’s crisis but said the lack of aid in the country was significantly worsening the already dire crisis.
The government has prevented lorries containing supplies entering Venezuela from the US, Brazil and Colombia.
How did we get here?
Mr Guaidó and Mr Maduro each claim to be the constitutional president of Venezuela.
Shortly after Mr Guaidó declared himself interim leader, his assets were frozen and the nation’s Supreme Court, dominated by government loyalists, imposed a travel ban on him.
But the 35-year-old opposition leader defied that ban last month when he toured Latin American countries to garner support.
Mr Guaidó has continued to call for President Maduro to step aside and urge the security forces, which have mainly been loyal to the government, to switch sides.
Mr Guaidó has been recognised as leader by more than 50 countries, including most in Latin America and the US. Mr Maduro, who still has the support of China and Russia, accuses the opposition of being part of a US-orchestrated coup.
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