Venezuelan National Assembly chief Juan Guaido renewed calls for his supporters to protest on Wednesday for what he pledged would be the “largest march” in the country’s history.
It came a day after he put out a strong call for the military to be part of a peaceful national uprising to oust President Nicolas Maduro, which led to violent clashes between authorities and opposition supporters.
Maduro remained defiant, appearing in a state television broadcast on Tuesday night together with Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, during which he labelled Guaido supporters as a "small group" and said their plan had failed.
"(Prosecutors) will launch criminal prosecutions for the serious crimes that have been committed against the constitution, the rule of law and the right to peace," he said.
The US asserted on Tuesday that the embattled Venezuelan leader was preparing to flee the country for Cuba, but was talked out of it by Russia.
"He (Maduro) had an aeroplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning as we understand it and the Russians indicated he should stay. He was headed for Havana," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN but did not offer any evidence to back up the claim.
In a three-minute video published on Tuesday, Guaido said he had begun the "final phase" of his plan to oust Maduro, adding that soldiers who took to the streets against Maduro's government would be defending the country's constitution.
“The moment is now! The future is ours: the people and Armed Forces united to put an end to Maduro's time in office,” he said, as his political mentor Lopez and several heavily armed soldiers backed by a single armoured vehicle looked on.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday evening issued an order prohibiting U.S. air operators from flying below 26,000 feet in Venezuela’s airspace until further notice, citing “increasing political instability and tensions”.
The FAA notice said any air operators currently in Venezuela, which would include private jets, should depart within 48 hours.
Flight tracking service FlightRadar24 on Tuesday evening showed some flights between South America and Europe were crossing Venezuelan airspace, but at altitudes above 26,000 feet (around 7,924m).
Speaking from the Plaza Altamira in Caracas later on Tuesday, Guaido said the protest "was and always will be peaceful". He again asked the military to support his cause.
"We are going to resist and achieve one more step towards the end of usurpation. Operation Freedom has started!"
This is Guaido's boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise against Maduro. If he fails, it could be seen as evidence that he doesn't have as much military support as he says he has and could lead government authorities who have already stripped him of his parliamentary immunity to arrest him.
In response to Guaido's call to the military for support, Maduro — who took office after the death of President Hugo Chavez — said he had the "total loyalty" of military leaders.
"Nerves of steel!," Maduro said on Twitter. "I call for maximum popular mobilisation to assure the victory of peace. We will win!"
However, officials from U.S. President Donald Trump's administration said three top Maduro aides had apparently been in talks with the opposition and indicated they would support a peaceful transition of power.
"They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward," said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams.
US national security adviser John Bolton said a similar thing to reporters: "All agreed that Maduro had to go."
No evidence was provided as to whether this was true or not.
The three named were Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala.
Earlier that day, Padrino said that "acts of violence" by some members of the military had been "partly defeated" and that the military's top ranks remained "loyal to the constitution".
Guaido invoked the constitution back in January to assume interim presidency, describing Maduro's re-election in 2018 as illegitimate.
According to Tim Gill, a Venezuela expert at the University of North Carolina in the US, few members of the military have yet to heed Guaido's call.
"It seems either that Guaido received word that there would be a larger uprising and it didn't happen, or perhaps he was attempting to bait Maduro into cracking down on him and his allies," he told Euronews.
"The latter seems more likely, in my opinion. Guaido seemingly believes that when Maduro finally cracks down on him and his allies, that this is when the U.S. might become militarily engaged, and, as a result, Maduro might finally leave office," he added.
Witnesses said armed men in military uniform accompanying Guaido exchanged gunfire with soldiers supporting Maduro outside the La Carlota air base but the incident fizzled out and did not look like the opposition would try to take power through military force.
Later clashes between military units still loyal to the Chavista leader and Guaido supporters continued outside an air base in Caracas.
A Venezuelan National Guard vehicle ran over protesters outside the La Carlota military base in Caracas who were throwing stones and hitting vehicles with sticks, Reuters television images showed.
The symbolism behind Lopez freedom
On Tuesday, Guaido addressed the nation in a video shot at La Carlota showing him surrounded by soldiers and accompanied by detained activist Leopoldo Lopez.
Lopez has been under house arrest for leading an anti-government push in 2014 but said he was freed by army personnel under Guaido's command.
The fact that Lopez was freed could be interpreted as a fundamental breach of the military's loyalty to Maduro. His surprise appearance at Guaido's side during his announcement from La Carlota is also seen by many as symbolic.
The opposition leader was serving a sentence of almost 13 years in prison under house arrest for leading the anti-government push. The former Caracas' mayor has been one of the most emblematic prisoners of the Chavista regime and his imprisonment has been one of the main images in the international condemnation against Maduro's government.
Lopez was released by the unit in charge of securing his house arrest. His release demonstrates important and unprecedented cooperation between the Venezuelan armed forces and the opposition. It also validates Guaido's speech, which confirms the support of the "main military units".
What has been Maduro's regime response?
The Venezuelan government has dismissed suggestions that some of the military forces have joined opposition leaders Guaido and Lopez.
Maduro's Information Minister, Jorge Rodriguez, responded on Twitter, saying the government was tackling a small group of "military traitors" that are seeking to promote a coup.
"We inform the Venezuelan people that we are currently confronting and deactivating a small group of military traitors," he wrote.
While Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino tweeted that armed forces remained "firmly in defence of the national constitution and legitimate authorities," and that all military units across Venezuela "report normality" in their barracks and bases.
Uprising orchestrated by the United States?
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza accused the United States of helping Guaido orchestrate the uprising, which Carlos Vecchio — Guaido's envoy to the United States — denied.
Vecchio told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration had nothing to do with Tuesday's events.
"No. This is a movement led by Venezuelans," he said.
Bolton urged three key Maduro aides to keep their word on ensuring a peaceful transition of power to the opposition.
"It’s still very important for three figures in the Maduro regime who have been talking to the opposition over these last three months to make good on their commitment to achieve the peaceful transition of power from the Maduro clique to interim president Juan Guaido," Bolton told reporters.
US Secretary of State Department Mike Pompeo said that the US government "fully supported the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy."
Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro expressed "solidarity" for the people of Venezuela "enslaved by a dictator" on Twitter.
Spain said that even if it supported Guaido it did not want a military coup and preferred elections.
The Russian foreign ministry accused the opposition of using violence, provoking public disorder, and of trying to draw armed forces into clashes in a statement published concerning the situation in Venezuela.
Turkey has also condemned the opposition's uprising, saying it amounted a challenge "against the constitutional order in Venezuela."
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged "maximum restraint" in Venezuela to avoid violence, Stephane Dujarric told reporters, adding that Guterres was available to mediate if both sides requested help.