VENEZUELA - Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó says he has held secret meetings with the military to win support for ousting President Nicolás Maduro. Mr Guaidó declared him interim president earlier this month and was immediately recognised by the US and several Latin American countries. Major Powers Russia and China back Mr Maduro and military support is seen as crucial to his hold on power. About three million people have fled Venezuela amid acute economic problems, and there has been an upsurge in violence in recent weeks.

US President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he had spoken to Mr Guaidó and supported his “historic assumption of the presidency”, writing in a second tweet that “The fight for freedom has begun. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt meanwhile is expected to urge EU nations to impose sanctions on key figures in Mr Maduro’s government on Thursday, after also speaking to Mr Guaidó on Wednesday.

The European Parliament voted on Thursday in a non-binding resolution to recognise Mr Guaidó as interim president until fresh elections can be called. The European Parliament has no foreign policy powers but urged the European Union and its member states to follow suit. Inside Venezuela, there are reports of international journalists being detained. Spanish news agency EFE says three of its journalists are being deported to Colombia.Two French journalists, working for a TV programme called Quotidien, have also been detained. Two others, from Chile, have already been deported.

What did Mr Guaidó say?

“We have had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces,” Mr Guaidó writes in an article in the New York Times. “The military’s withdrawal of support from Mr Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government, and the majority of those in service agree that the country’s recent travails are untenable.” The article also says the opposition has offered an amnesty to armed forces “found not guilty of crimes against humanity”. However Mr Guaidó did not say who in the military he had been speaking with or what their positions were. Venezuela’s top military representative to the US Col José Luis Silva has defected - but senior military figures in Venezuela have supported Mr Maduro.

As head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Mr Guaidó says the constitution allows him to assume power temporarily when the president is deemed illegitimate. Venezuela’s Supreme Court has banned the opposition leader from leaving the country, however, and frozen his bank accounts. Venezuela’s president earlier told Russian news agency RIA he was prepared to hold talks with the opposition “so that we could talk for the good of Venezuela”.

He added that he was not prepared to accept ultimatums or blackmail, and insisted that he has the backing of Venezuela’s military, accusing deserters of conspiring to plot a coup. The armed forces have played a key role in supporting his government, with many officers holding posts as ministers or other influential positions. Analysts say some members of the military may also be reluctant to switch sides for fear being held to account for alleged corruption and rights violations despite the offer of amnesty. The BBC’s Guillermo Olmo in Caracas says Wednesday’s protests were modest in size, in line with opposition calls for small-scale actions, but that the protest movement is growing in poorer areas once seen as government strongholds. Meanwhile, a Russian airliner that made a surprise landing in Caracas on Monday has departed the country. National Assembly member and former central bank economist Jose Guerra said central bank officials had told him the plane had come to collect 20 tonnes of gold from the country’s central bank.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton warned businesses not to deal in “gold, oil, or other Venezuelan commodities” stolen from the people by “the Maduro mafia”. A Venezuelan NGO has alleged that Mr Maduro’s government is using a paramilitary police force to carry out extra-judicial killings “in the context of the protests” in deprived areas. The Venezuelan Program for Education-Action in Human Rights said on Monday that 35 such killings had taken place since protests began. Five foreign journalists - two Colombians and a Spaniard working for Spanish news agency Efe and two TV reporters from France - have been detained by the Venezuelan authorities while two more, from Chile, have been expelled after being held for 14 hours.

 Two Venezuelan reporters were also detained but later freed. Colombia and Spain have called for their release but Venezuelan Foreign Minister says they entered the country without work permits. Efe says its staff is being held by the intelligence services. On Monday, the US imposed curbs on the country’s state-owned oil firm PDVSA.

Mr Maduro has the backing of Russia, China, and Turkey. Russian officials have denied reports that mercenaries from the country have been sent to protect his life. Mexico and Uruguay meanwhile have announced plans for a conference of “neutral” countries on 7 February in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo, to discuss the crisis. US officials have previously stated that all options “are on the table” to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, which observers have taken to include possible military action. Mr Bolton also appeared at a news briefing with a notepad showing the words “5,000 troops to Colombia”, which borders Venezuela. The Lima Group - a 14-country body including Canada set up in 2017 to find a peaceful solution to the crisis - has opposed any military intervention in the country.