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UN Rights Chief Calls for Talks to Defuse Venezuela Crisis

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U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 5, 2018.

U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called for talks to defuse the political tensions in Venezuela, saying that the situation "may rapidly spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences."

In a statement Friday, Bachelet called for an independent investigation into the violence that has killed 20 people and detained more than 350 in protests over the past week.

"Any violent incident resulting in death or injury should be subject to an independent and impartial investigation to find out whether there was excessive use of force by the authorities, or if crimes have been committed by members of armed groups, whether pro-government or otherwise," she said.

"More than three million Venezuelans have fled the country, many millions of others are living in totally miserable conditions," she added. "This is, at heart, a crisis of governance, and it is the responsibility of the country's leaders to put an end to this disastrous situation."

The United States has requested a public meeting of the United Nations Security Council to be held Saturday, at which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to speak.

FILE - Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of Venezuela, during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro's resignation in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23, 2019.
FILE - Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of Venezuela, during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro's resignation in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23, 2019.

The U.S. State Department said Pompeo will "underscore the administration's support for the Venezuelan people" by urging members of the Security Council to recognize National Assembly President Juan Guaido as interim leader.

But Russia is opposed to the move. Reuters reports that when questioned about a possible Security Council meeting, Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia said Thursday, "That's their internal business."

U.S. President Donald Trump bluntly warned Maduro on Thursday that "all options are on the table" if there is not a peaceful transition to democracy in the South American country.

On Wednesday, Venezuela's disputed president, Nicolas Maduro, said he was ending diplomatic relations with the United States in response to Trump's announcement that the U.S. was officially recognizing Guaido as Venezuela's interim leader after Guaido swore himself into office.

Maduro ordered U.S. diplomats to leave within 72 hours. However, Pompeo said Maduro no longer has the authority to issue orders.

Thursday, 16 of the 34 nations in the Organization of American States (OAS) recognized Guaido as interim president of Venezuela at an emergency session.

Pompeo urged members to oppose the "illegitimate'' Maduro and pledged to make $20 million available for humanitarian assistance to Venezuela.

"All OAS member states must align themselves with democracy and respect for the rule of law," the top U.S. diplomat said.

Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-run congress who declared himself interim president of Venezuela until elections can be called, during a rally demanding President Nicolas step down.
Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-run congress who declared himself interim president of Venezuela until elections can be called, during a rally demanding President Nicolas step down.

Meanwhile, the State Department ordered non-emergency personnel to leave Venezuela, but it is not closing its embassy in Caracas.

The department said it was ordering the evacuation for security reasons, and that U.S. citizens should "strongly consider" leaving the country.

More sanctions possible

White House officials emphasized that Trump is not ruling out any response, such as a naval blockade or other military action, if Maduro unleashes violence against protesters or takes action against Guaido.

The most immediate action by Washington likely would be enhanced sanctions against members of Maduro's government.

"In our sanctions, we've barely scratched the surface on what actions the United States can take," said a senior administration official.

Several nations have joined the U.S. in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, including Canada and 11 of the 14 members of the newly formed Lima Group of Latin nations, among them Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru.

French President Emmanuel Macron called Venezuela's elections "illegitimate" in a tweet Thursday, and saluted the bravery of Venezuelans demanding freedom.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday the situation in Venezuela could descend into "disaster" if the country's main political rivals fail to reach an agreement.

Speaking Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Guterres said the U.N. hopes "dialogue can be possible, and that we avoid an escalation that would lead to the kind of conflict that would be a disaster" for the people of Venezuela and the region.

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of United Nations addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2019.
Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of United Nations addresses the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2019.

Warnings from Russia, China

But officials in Russia, one of Venezuela's biggest allies, reacted with anger Thursday at the United States and other Western nations for backing Guaido, accusing them of interfering in its internal affairs. Russia's Foreign Ministry warned the United States against any military intervention, saying such a move would have "catastrophic" consequences.

China urged the United States to stay out of the crisis. Beijing and Moscow have extensive economic interests, having loaned Caracas billions of dollars.

Bolivia, Cuba, Iran and Syria also have issued statements throwing their support behind Maduro.

The three member nations of the Lima Group that have not supported Guaido are Guyana, Saint Lucia and Mexico.

"From a constitutional, humanitarian, and democratic perspective — and according to international law — there was no option left for the United States and the international community but to recognize Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela," Moises Rendon, associate director and associate fellow of the CSIS Americas Program, told VOA.

Venezuela and its state-owned oil company, PDVSA, are estimated to owe $7 billion on a combined trade debt of about $60 billion. The country's oil-based economy, which is wracked by hyperinflation, has collapsed.

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