Russia sends 'around 400' mercenaries to Venezuela to protect President Maduro as US diplomats and their families flee the country
- US diplomats headed for airport amid power struggle between President Maduro and opposition leader
- Juan Guaido declared himself interim President before slipping away amid speculation he would be arrested
- Trump recognised him as leader and threatened military action but the Kremlin has stood by Nicolas Maduro
- US President has openly mused about military intervention in Venezuela, saying 'all options are on the table'
- Top military chiefs have expressed loyalty to Maduro who was re-elected in disputed poll in May last year
- Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Caracas and around the country during protests this week
US diplomats are heading to the airport in Caracas amid reports of the arrival of 400 Russian mercenaries flown in to support President Nicolas Maduro against an opposition leader who wants to replace him.
A letter from a US embassy security officer requesting a police escort for a caravan of 10 vehicles was leaked earlier in the day and published on social media by a journalist for state-owned TV network Telesur. Its authenticity was confirmed by a US source.
A defiant Mr Maduro called all Venezuelan diplomats home from the US and closed its embassy in Washington on Thursday, a day after ordering all US diplomats out of the country by the weekend.
That followed President Donald Trump's decision to support the claim to power by opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Washington has refused to comply with Mr Maduro's order but has ordered non-essential staff to leave the country, citing security concerns.
The Trump administration said Mr Maduro's order is not legal because the US no longer recognises him as Venezuela's legitimate leader.
US President Donald Trump warned 'all options are on the table' to force Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro out of power.
Staff at the US embassy are leaving the country amid reports of the arrival of Russian mercenaries to protect Mr Maduro.
The oil-rich but economically devastated country was plunged into uncertainty on Wednesday when Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, proclaimed himself 'acting president'.
He gained swift endorsement from Washington and a dozen regional powers including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. But with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance, the battle between Mr Maduro and Guaido has set up a potentially explosive struggle for power.
Mr Maduro - backed by the country's military - has gone on the offensive calling home all Venezuelan diplomats from the United States and closing its embassy on Thursday, a day after ordering all US diplomats out of Venezuela by the weekend.
Washington has refused to comply, but ordered its non-essential staff to leave the tumultuous country, citing security concerns. The Trump administration says Mr Maduro's order is not legal because the US no longer recognises him as Venezuela's legitimate leader.
The US President meanwhile has openly mused about military intervention in Venezuela, saying 'all options are on the table,' and analysts suggest he could consider further economic sanctions against the country, a third of whose oil production goes to the US.
Maduro said Thursday he was open to holding talks to resolve the crisis and was ready to meet Guaido.
Meanwhile, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for an independent investigation into alleged excessive use of force by Venezuelan security forces, citing reports of at least 20 people killed this week.
'I am extremely concerned that the situation in Venezuela may rapidly spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences', Bachelet, a former president of Chile, said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has given Guaido his endorsement but stopped just short of recognising him as the new President, while Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said last year's Venezuelan elections were 'neither free nor fair'.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was 'clear that Nicholas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela'.
EU countries are drafting an appeal for Venezuela's leader Nicolas Maduro to call quick elections, with some demanding recognition of Juan Guaido as interim president if he does not, diplomats said.
'We want an immediate call for elections in the near future,' one diplomat said following a meeting of European Union ambassadors who discussed wording for a new and tougher declaration.
Meanwhile, all eyes were on Mr Guaido whose whereabouts have been a mystery since the 35-year-old was symbolically sworn in on Wednesday before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, promising to uphold the constitution and rid Venezuela of Mr Maduro's dictatorship.
Speaking from an undisclosed location, he told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Mr Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy.
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