Russian military contractors who do secret missions for the Kremlin have reportedly arrived in Venezuela in the past two days to protect President Nicolas Maduro in the face on U.S.-backed opposition protests, a new report says.
Sources told Reuters that there was a contingent of military contractors from Russia in the South American country with the goal of beefing up Maduro’s immediate security.
It is unclear how many Russian contractors are in Venezuela, with one source telling Reuters the number was upwards of 400. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had “no such information” about the reported contractors.
The report comes after Russia, which has backed Maduro’s socialist government with billions of dollars, said this week that it would stand by him after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim head of state.
Guaido’s declaration on Wednesday sent shock waves across the international community and pitting two politicians bidding for power.
Guaido, whose whereabouts have been a mystery since the 35-year-old was symbolically sworn in Wednesday promising to rid Venezuela of Maduro’s dictatorship, told Univision that he would consider granting the socialist president and his allies amnesty if they helped return the country to democracy.
“Amnesty is on the table,” Guaido said. “Those guarantees are for all those who are willing to side with the constitution to recover the constitutional order.”
Guaido, who was thrust into the limelight when he was elected head of the opposition-led National Assembly earlier this month, said Thursday he will be reaching out to all sectors of government – including the military – to end the political and humanitarian crisis.
However, Maduro remains defiant and shows no signs of giving up power, maintaining he was democratically reelected into office during the highly controversial November elections.
Maduro called home all Venezuela diplomats from the United States and closed its embassy on Thursday, a day after ordering all U.S. diplomats out of the South American country by the weekend.
The Trump administration, which gave diplomatic support to Guaido’s presidential claim, said Maduro’s order isn’t legal because the U.S. no longer recognizes him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,” Maduro said in an address broadcast live on state TV. “You must fulfill my order from the government of Venezuela.”
Besides the United States, much of the international community rallied behind Guaido, with Canada and numerous Latin American and European countries announcing that they recognized his claim to the presidency. Trump promised to use the "full weight" of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela's democracy.
The State Department is ordering non-essential diplomats and staff at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela to leave the country. The department said it is taking the step for security reasons and that the embassy in Caracas will stay open.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States is ready to send Venezuela food and medicine in response to requests from the opposition-controlled congress.
Pompeo on Thursday urged other countries to step up and help Venezuelans rebuild a country he says has been destroyed by President Nicolas Maduro's "illegitimate" government.
Maduro has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behavior by his opponents, and has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Meanwhile, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro's government.
China's Foreign Ministry called on the United States to stay out of the crisis, while Russia's deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Russian Federation Council, called Guaido's declaration "an attempted coup" backed by the U.S.
Domestically, Guaido faces the near-impossible mission to get Venezuela’s military – a traditional arbiter of political disputes in the country – on board. Guaido has said he needs the backing of three critical groups: The people, the international community and the military.
Venezuela's top military brass pledged their unwavering support to Maduro, delivering vows of loyalty Thursday before rows of green-uniformed officers on state television.
A half-dozen generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing Washington of meddling in Venezuela's affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader's rule.
Gunfire during the protests and looting left 21 dead between Wednesday and early Thursday in the capital of Caracas and throughout the country, reported Marco Ponce, coordinator of the non-profit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict.
Many Venezuelans were looking for Guaido to re-emerge and provide guidance on the opposition's next steps.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.