Sky News:- A Venezuelan air force general has defected from President Nicolas Maduro’s administration as anti-government protests take place in Caracas.
General Francisco Yanez called on people to participate in demonstrations against the socialist leader’s rule, and claimed 90% of the country’s armed forces are against Mr Maduro.
The embattled president proposed holding congressional elections early in a speech to his supporters on Saturday, after hundreds of thousands of marchers flooded the streets of Caracas to demand his resignation.
Many had flags and placards as they supported opposition leader Juan Guaido’s calls for democratic elections.
The protesters planned to converge on the European Union headquarters in eastern Caracas from five staging areas around the city.
Major European powers have given Mr Maduro until Sunday to call “free elections” or they will recognise Mr Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the crisis-torn country’s acting president.
Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsey, who is in Caracas, said: “There was concern among some that they wouldn’t be able to get the sort of turnouts they have seen a week before.
“But… there’s hundreds of thousands of people on the streets. It’s absolutely packed with people.
“They’re coming from all over Caracas, they’re shouting ‘Yes we can’, the phrase Obama made famous, and they’re saying ‘Freedom, freedom’.”
Pro-Maduro forces have been rallying in the western side of the city to mark the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of the late Hugo Chavez, the leftist firebrand who installed a socialist government.
He told his supporters: “I say to those on the right (opposition), reflect on 20 years of conspiracy, 20 years of coup after coup, of defeat after defeat. When are you going to stop hurting the country? Stop already doing so much damage, that you have done to our country.”
He added: “Venezuela is not a country of beggars, we are no one’s beggars. All we need we can and we must produce it in Venezuela, a country with no shame but dignity, a country of honour.
“I am very ashamed to see this group of opposition coup perpetrators, how they order them (to do things) from Washington.”
“Trickery, trickery and more trickery!”
Some public workers attending the pro-government demonstration told AP they had been forced to go there by their bosses.
One marcher told the AP he was bused in to Caracas last night from the city of Puerto Ayacucho, which is 14 hours away from the capital.
He asked not to have his name published over fear of reprisals and said he worried about losing his government job if he did not attend.
Mr Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, has described the protests as part of a US-led coup attempt.
He tweeted: “Our struggle for self-determination has deep roots in the historic independence battles waged by our Liberators.
“From them comes strength, with which we defend the sovereignty and the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
General Yanez is the first high-ranking officer to leave Mr Maduro’s government since 23 January, when Mr Guaido declared himself the country’s legitimate leader.
He said in a speech broadcast on YouTube: “The transition to democracy is imminent.”
Yanez described Mr Maduro as a dictator and referred to Mr Guaido as his president, but refused to say whether he is still in Venezuela or has left the country.
The officer used a Colombian number as he confirmed to the Associated Press that he had defected.
He said he would not give further statements until given authorisation by “the commander-in-chief of the legal armed force which is President Juan Guaido”.
It remains unclear how much support there is for Mr Guaido within Venezuela’s military.
Venezuela’s most important regional military commanders and its defence minister issued a statement in support of Mr Maduro shortly after protests broke out against him last week.
They described Mr Guaido as a coup-monger backed by the United States.