CARACAS, April 30 (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Tuesday he had begun the “final phase” of his plan to oust President Nicolas Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the military to back him to end Maduro’s “usurpation.”
A Reuters journalist later saw security forces firing tear gas at Guaido and around 70 armed men in military uniform near the La Carlota air force base in Caracas.
The government promptly dismissed any suggestion of a military insurrection.
“We reject this coup movement, which aims to fill the country with violence,” said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino.
He said the armed forces remained “firmly in defense of the national constitution and legitimate authorities,” and that all military units acrossVenezuela “report normality” in their barracks and bases.
Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez tweeted that the government was confronting a small group of “military traitors” seeking to promote a coup.
Diosdado Cabello, head of the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly, said the opposition had not been able to take over the air base and urged Maduro’s supporters to march at the presidential palace in Caracas.
Guaido, in a video posted on his Twitter account, was accompanied by men in military uniform and opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, who has been placed under house arrest.
“The national armed forces have taken the correct decision, and they are counting on the support of the Venezuelan people,” Guaido said.
Guaido, the leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.
He has been traveling outside the capital Caracas more and more in recent weeks to try to put pressure on Maduro to step down.
Protests are planned for Wednesday, May 1, including what Guaido has said will be “the largest march in Venezuela’s history,” part of what he calls the “definitive phase” of his effort to take office in order to call fresh elections.
Around 50 countries including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, and Washington has imposed sanctions to try to dislodge Maduro.
Maduro for his part has appeared to retain control of state institutions and the loyalty of senior military officers.
He calls Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaido openly violated earlier this year.
Last week, Guaido said his congressional ally – opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro – had been detained, and that 11 members of his team had been summoned to appear before the Sebin intelligence agency.
Lopez, seen with Guaido, appeared to have left his home for the first time since he was placed under house arrest in 2017, after three years in jail.
(Reporting by Angus Berwick Writing by Kevin Liffey Editing by Peter Graff and Chizu Nomiyama)