Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Venezuela's military and security forces Thursday to avoid any actions against the self-declared interim president and U.S. diplomats or risk a U.S. response.
"We call on all Venezuelan security forces to ensure the protection of interim president [Juan} Guaido's physical integrity and his safety," Pompeo said at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.
Pompeo earlier had rejected President Nicolas Maduro's threat Wednesday to expel U.S. diplomats within 72 hours. Venezuela broke relations with the U.S. after President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. was recognizing the 35-year-old Guaido as interim president.
Pompeo noted that several deaths and more than a hundred arrests were recorded in massive demonstrations in Caracas and across the country Wednesday in support of Guaido.
The non-profit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict said that at least 12 protesters were killed Wednesday, all of them by gunshots.
"So I reiterate our warning about any decision by remnant elements of the Maduro regime to suppress the peaceful democratic transition," Pompeo said.
There were no immediate signs that the Venezuelan military was prepared to break with Maduro as had been hoped by Guaido. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez declared the loyalty of the armed forces to Maduro and charged that Guaido was attempting to mount a coup.
Padrino and several generals joined Maduro at a news conference to show support. Padrino said Venezuelans would not back a "de facto parallel government" led by Guaido, the president of the National Assembly.
"It's not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems," he said. "It's dialogue."
Maduro also received support Thursday from Russia and China, which have extensive investments in Venezuela, in moves that could possibly set up a major power struggle for influence in the region with the U.S.
A Tweet from the Kremlin said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had phoned Maduro Thursday and "expressed his support for the legitimate Venezuelan authorities."
Following Guaido's declaration Wednesday that he would serve as interim president, Trump announced that the U.S. was recognizing him as Venezuela's leader.
"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," he said.
In 2017, Trump warned that a "military option" was possible to depose Maduro in oil-rich Venezuela, once the most prosperous nation in Latin America but now an economic ruin. The State Department has estimated that about three million Venezuelans desperate for food and medical aid have fled to neighboring countries.
At a White House meeting Wednesday, Trump said in response to reporters' questions that "we're not considering anything but all options on the table. All options, always, all options are on the table."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.