Reuters is reporting that private military contractors working on behalf of Russia are in Venezuela to help embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro strengthen security amid opposition protests and a competing claim to leadership.
The report on January 25 cites two people close to the contractors. A third source close to the contractors confirmed that they had arrived in Venezuela but did not specify their role, Reuters added.
One source said the contractors flew to Venezuela from third countries where they had been conducting operations.
The news agency reported that the Russian Defense Ministry and Venezuela's Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the contractors.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “we have no such information."
Yevgeny Shabayev, head of the All-Russia Officers Assembly with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela could be around 400, although other sources spoke of smaller numbers.
Reuters quoted sources as saying the contractors are associated with the so-called Wagner group of mostly former Russian service personnel who have been involved in clandestine operations in foreign countries.
Private Russian military contractors have been reported in other countries, including Syria, Ukraine, and in African nations.
On January 23, Russia Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed that military contractors were operating in Sudan after British press reports stated that they were helping to crack down on protesters in that country, which is an ally of Moscow.
“According to our information, representatives of Russian private security companies, who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies, are operating in Sudan," she said.
Zakharova denied the British press reports and said the task of the private security firms “is limited to training staff for the military and law-enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan."
The reports of possible Russia-linked military contractors in Venezuela come as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he will urge UN Security Council members to recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president during a January 26 emergency meeting.
The meeting of the 15-member council was requested by the United States after the U.S. and a number of countries in the region said they recognized Guaido as head of state and urged Maduro to step down.
Guaido, the president of the opposition-led National Assembly, on January 23 declared himself acting president in Caracas, as tens of thousands of people marched across the country against Maduro. Dozens of protesters have been killed in the unrest.
Maduro, who took office in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, has been criticized for alleged human rights abuses and for his handling of Venezuela's economy.
Maduro was sworn in for a second term two weeks ago but has been met by international condemnation.
An estimated 3 million people have fled the country amid shortages of items like medicine and food.