U.S. President Donald Trump has said he recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, leading the South American country break diplomatic relations with bitter rival Washington.
Guaido, the president of the opposition-led National Assembly, earlier on January 23 declared himself acting president in Caracas, as tens of thousands of people marched across the country against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia were among regional countries offering support for Guaido, while European Union Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that "I hope all of Europe will united in support of democratic forces in Venezuela."
"Unlike Maduro, the parliamentary assembly, including Juan Guaido have a democratic mandate from Venezuelan citizens," Tusk wrote.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry said U.S. actions in Venezuela reveal the West’s true attitude toward international law.
"The developments in Venezuela show very well how progressive Western society really treats international law, sovereignty, and noninterference into internal affairs of other states," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Russia has had close relations with Venezuela under Maduro and recently sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to the country to participate in military maneuvers in an unusual display of Russian military force in South America. Venezuela has also purchased millions of dollars in military equipment from Russia in recent years.
Venezuela’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in a Twitter statement indicated that the country’s armed forces would not recognize Guaido, or any other "self-proclaimed" person, as president.
"Soldiers of the Motherland do not recognize the president imposed on us under the influence of foreign interests and self-proclaimed unlawfully. The Armed Forces are defending the Constitution and are guarantors of national sovereignty," he wrote, raising fears of further violence.
Images from the protests in the capital showed some demonstrators facing off against National Guard security forces, tear gas being dispersed, and vehicles on fire. A rally the night before reportedly left four people dead.
Some counter-demonstrations were also being held in support of Maduro, who was reelected last year in a vote labeled as illegitimate at home and abroad.
He was sworn in for a second term two weeks ago but has been met by international condemnation.
In response to Trump's recognition of the opposition leader, Maduro gave all U.S. diplomatic staff in the country 72 hours to leave and said he was breaking diplomatic ties with Washington.
However, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro no longer had the authority to break diplomatic relations and that Washington would continue to conduct business through Guaido's interim government.
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.
An estimated 3 million people have fled the country amid shortages of items like medicine and food.