UNDER siege Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro’s own “dirty dozen” inner circle are getting ready to show him the door as they line up a successor, it has been reported.
The tyrant is facing a challenge from opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has been backed by parts of the armed forces and brought thousands of his supporters onto the streets.
A woman was killed and dozens were injured when anti-Maduro protesters and security forces loyal to the regime clashed in Caracas.
Maduro and a “dirty dozen” of his top lieutenants are holed-up in the Fort Tiuna luxurious palace where he is guarded by Cuban troops as he no longer trusts his own armed forces.
It's estimated there are up to 25,000 Cuban troops now based in Venezuela, tasked with keeping Maduro alive and his regime in power.
He went into hiding after violence was sparked by Guaido's calls to oust him and elements of the armed forces sided with the opposition leader.
A well-placed member of the country’s elite said moves are afoot to topple the hard-left leader within “days”.
"They are fearful that with greater sanctions from the United States and other countries, combined with failing power and water supplies, Venezuela will just collapse and they will go down with it," he told Sky News.
"There are arguments taking place, but it all means that Maduro will go, it is just what will follow that they are discussing."
Meanwhile Guaido has called for an escalating series of strikes to force the president to relinquish power
In a series of tweets he called for the "largest march" in the country’s history and said "millions of Venezuelans" were in the streets in "this final phase" of his move to oust Maduro.
Earlier this week it was reported Maduro had been ready to flee Venezuela but was talked out of it by Russian advisers.
Trump’s national security aide John Bolton says Moscow-backed Maduro is surrounded by "scorpions in a bottle" and it's only a matter of time before he’s toppled.
“Yesterday even though Maduro didn’t leave the country as he was planning to do because of Russian advice," he said.
GONE WITHIN DAYS?
“The fact is key figures like the defence minister, the chief judge of the supreme court and the head of the presidential guard have been outed as people dealing with the opposition.
“And some day the documents they were prepared to sign with the opposition will become public.
“So if you are Nicolas Maduro can you look at your defence minister any more and trust him?
“I don’t think so. I think Maduro is now surrounded by scorpions in a bottle and it’s only a matter of time.
The Cold War era phrase "scorpions in a bottle" refers to a mutual destruction scenario where if one stings, all end up stung.
Bolton used the analogy on Maduro's position because it would only take one of his nervous ministers to back-stab him for the whole besieged regime to fall.
The veteran National Security Adviser also said US military forces are “ready to go” into the South American nation at a moment’s notice to support the uprising.
Speaking earlier on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Bolton said: “We’re on the balls of our feet ready to go.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also confirmed today that “military action is possible”.
The bid to oust the socialist president comes as Venezuela goes into meltdown.
Its once prosperous people are angry because while their country has the largest oil reserves in the world, it suffers from chronic food and medicine shortages plus crippling power blackouts.
Meanwhile hyper-inflation has rendered their currency and people’s savings worthless.
All this has sparked months of demonstrations — but this week's call for an uprising and large scale demonstrations is the most dramatic development so far and suggests a full scale civil war may be imminent.
But Maduro is still clinging on to power with backing from his powerful ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Anti-Maduro crowds have gathered at the posh El Paraiso neighbourhood in western Caracas where the socialist government elite live, demanding Maduro steps down and a general election is called.
On Tuesday morning, Guaido told his anti-government supporters to mount a rebellion to overthrow Maduro – who was swept back into power in January following controversial elections deemed illegitimate by many countries.
He was joined by Venezuela's most-prominent opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez in a three-minute video to announce the coup.
Guaido, the leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency.
He argued that Maduro's re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.
Around 50 countries including the United States have recognised Guaido as Venezuela's interim president.
The bloody upheaval in Venezuela saw:
- Opposition leader Juan Guaido calling for uprising to topple President Nicolas Maduro from the La Carlota airbase in Caracas
- Maduro's forces firing tear gas before a heavy exchange of gunfire, with protesters caught in the middle
- Video footage showing a Venezuelan National Guard armoured vehicle ploughing into demonstrators
- Trump backing Guaido and his uprising while Putin backed Maduro in talks with top officials
- At least 50 confirmed injured— about half from rubber bullets — and one dead
Lopez was apparently released from house arrest by soldiers who defected to the growing anti-government cause and were now answering to Guaido.
In the video, Lopez declared: "I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers."
And Guaido said of his defecting military supporters: "The armed forces have taken the right decision.
"With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history."
Amid the mayhem, armoured cars were filmed driving at full speed into the crowd.
Horrifying video showed demonstrators lying on the ground with their heads and legs bloodied after being mowed down by troops loyal to – and fighting under the orders of – the president.
The injured protesters were rushed away on a motorbike as the armoured trucks sped away dodging fireballs thrown by the demonstrators.
SOCIALIST LEADER'S LUXURY BOLT HOLE
The chaos was far removed from the tranquillity of the leader's luxury enclave in Caracas with its bowling alley, swimming pools, lakes and restaurants.
Maduro and his henchmen are living in fabulous estates which would not look out of place in the hills of Hollywood.
In one area of the complex, next to a military parade ground, a giant iron gate leads into an officers’ club with a bowling alley, floodlit baseball stadium and enormous two-level swimming pool.
One visitor to one of the hillside mansions in Fort Tiuna described passing seven checkpoints, the last of which was manned by Cubans in red shirts who supervise Maduro’s security.
It's been reported Venezuelan troops are ready to turn on paranoid Maduro after he cut their monthly pay to just $4 and infiltrated their ranks with spies.
The calls for Maduro to go kicked off a day of bloody clashes as thousands took to the streets just blocks away from president Maduro's presidential palace.
The violent street battles that erupted in parts of Caracas were the most serious challenge yet to his rule.
While the rebellion seemed to have garnered only limited military support Guaido sought to keep the momentum going at the end of the day by calling for people to take to the streets again today.
Guaido and Lopez coordinated actions in the capital from a highway overpass – while troops loyal to Maduro fired tear gas from inside the adjacent air base.
A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Guaido at a plaza a few blocks from the skirmishes.
A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the highway, lobbing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the air base and setting a government bus on fire.
The head of a medical centre near the site of the street battles said doctors were treating 50 people, about half of them with injuries suffered from rubber bullets.
Venezuelan human rights group Provea said a 24-year-old man was shot and killed during an anti-government protest in the city of La Victoria.
As Maduro's forces repelled the action, Lopez and his family sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador's residence in Caracas before moving to the Spanish embassy.
Maduro tried to project an image of strength, saying he had spoken to several regional military commanders who reaffirmed their loyalty.
He wrote on Twitter: "Nerves of steel!"
But the head of Venezuela's secret police penned a letter breaking ranks with the embattled leader.
Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the head of Venezuela's feared SEBIN intelligence agency, said it was now time to "rebuilt the country".
He added: "The hour has arrived for us to look for other ways of doing politics.
"To build the homeland our children and grandchildren deserve."
Governments from around the world expressed support for Guaido while repeating calls to avoid violence.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said the Trump administration had received assurances from three key Maduro officials that the president would be removed peacefully.
Mr Bolton declined to discuss possible military actions – but said that "all options" are on the table as President Trump monitors developments "minute by minute."
President Trump had tweeted: "I am monitoring the situation in Venezuela very closely.
"The United States stands with the People of Venezuela and their Freedom!"
The uprising has been fuelled by popular resentment at political corruption in the country still wracked with poverty despite it having the world's largest oil reserves.
When oil prices crashed in 2014, the Venezuelan government had not used the prosperous years to build up reserves to fall back on.
Large areas of the collapsing country have been left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.
More than three million Venezuelans have fled in recent years.
What is the military's stance in Venezuela?
WHILE most military leaders openly back Maduro, the lower ranks are ill-equipped and are constantly monitored by the intelligence services.
Salaries have hugely decreased over the years and more than 4,000 low-ranking officers have deserted during the last 12 months.
"The middle ranks are earning around $3 to $4 a month, and that is impacting their own structure," said one expert on Venezuela's armed forces.
The military has also struggled to maintain its equipment as it suffers from a shortage of spare parts.
According to some analysts, intelligence agents are also embedded among the military forces to guard against anti-regime activity.
Those troops who support the opposition have been accused of betrayal and have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch.
Authorities have also arrested the family members of some suspects in an effort to determine their whereabouts, the rights group said.
REFUSES TO BUDGE
Maduro has strongly resisted calls for an early vote or that he leave power early before his six-year second term ends in 2025, sparking huge anti-government demonstrations.
Venezuela's socialist party boss, Diosdado Cabello, called on government supporters to amass at the presidential palace to defend Maduro from what he called a small uprising of traitorous military soldiers backed by the US.
He desperately tried to downplay the significance of the rebellion, saying Caracas is calm and that the air base near where the rebellious soldiers are gathered had not been touched.
Cabello said the opposition had not been able to take over the air base, which he said remained "absolutely under the operational control" of the government.
Maduro calls Guaido a US-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup.
The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and barred him from leaving the country
Last week, Guaido said his congressional ally – opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro – had been detained, and that 11 members of his team had been summoned to appear before the Sebin intelligence agency.
CORBYNISTAS BACK TYRANT
Meanwhile supporters of UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — a vocal admirer of the embattled socialist regime — dubbed the uprising a "Pincohet-style coup".
Corbynista MP Chris Williamson said: "It appears that the USA is ramping up its efforts to overthrow the legitimate and democratically elected President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, in a military coup."
"I stand in full solidarity with the people of Venezuela against this attack on their democracy and sovereignty."
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