BEDMINSTER (United States) • US President Donald Trump said he was considering military options as a response to the escalating crisis in Venezuela, describing the situation there as a "very dangerous mess".
Washington has slapped sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro and some of his allies, and branded him a "dictator" over his attempts to crush his country's opposition.
Venezuela has in turn accused the US of "imperialist aggression". But last Friday's comments were the first sign that Mr Trump may be mulling over military intervention.
"We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary," Mr Trump told reporters. "We have troops all over the world in places that are very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and they're dying."
He said Venezuela's political crisis was among the topics discussed at the talks he hosted at his golf club in New Jersey with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
"Venezuela is a mess. It is a very dangerous mess and a very sad situation," Mr Trump said.
But if any US military contingency planning is under way, it must be in its early stages. Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon refused to elaborate on Mr Trump's comments, adding: "As of right now, the Pentagon has received no orders."
He cautioned that "the military conducts contingency planning for a variety of situations".
"If called upon, we are prepared to support whole-of-government efforts to protect our national interest and safeguard US citizens," he said.
The White House said Mr Trump would only agree to speak with Mr Maduro "as soon as democracy is restored in that country", after the Venezuelan leader requested a phone call with the US President.
Mr Trump's military warning came two days after his administration imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, targeting members of a loyalist assembly installed in a July 30 election to bolster what the US calls Mr Maduro's "dictatorship".
General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela's Defence Minister, dismissed the threat as "an act of craziness, an act of supreme extremism".
Last Thursday, Mr Maduro declared that Venezuela's new Constituent Assembly holds supreme power over all branches of government, even over his position, and that its work - ostensibly to rewrite the Constitution - would return "peace" to the country.
But the US and major Latin American nations allege that Mr Maduro is using the body as a tool to quash dissent, by clamping down on the opposition and the legislature it controls.
The crisis has fuelled protests that have gripped Venezuela for the past four months. Nearly 130 people have been killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
Opposition to Mr Maduro among the country's 30 million citizens increased during a long economic crisis that brought food shortages and hyperinflation to what was once one of Latin America's wealthiest countries.