CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido called for mass protests across the country against President Nicolas Maduro on Monday (March 4) as he announced his return after a week touring Latin American allies.
His reappearance in Venezuela would pose an immediate challenge to the embattled Maduro, who will have to decide whether to arrest him for defying a travel ban - thereby provoking strong international condemnation - or allow him to enter unmolested, which would undermine his authority, analyst say.
"I'm announcing my return to the country. I am calling on the Venezuelan people to mobilize all over the country tomorrow at 11am (11pm Singapore time)," Guaido said in a Twitter message on Sunday.
Guaido, who has been recognised by more than 50 countries as interim president, gave no details of when or how he would return, though speculation is rife that a flight from the Colombian capital Bogota to Caracas is the most likely route.
However, its possible that he plans to slip across the border with Colombia in the same way he left Venezuela, claiming he had help on that occasion from Maduro's military.
In his message, Guaido asked supporters to pay close attention for messages of where the demonstrations would take place on Monday.
"Let's go Venezuela," he said.
He spent the weekend in Ecuador, but flew out of the city of Salinas around midday on Sunday. Authorities did not immediately clarify where he was headed.
Guaido held talks in the city on Saturday with President Lenin Moreno, and met with Venezuelan refugees.
Defying a travel ban by Maduro, Guaido slipped across the border to Colombia last weekend to try to bring in international humanitarian aid and to meet with visiting US Vice President Mike Pence.
The 35-year-old political newcomer continued on to Brazil, where he met the new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, and on Friday travelled to Paraguay and Argentina.
Guaido stunned the world on Jan 23, proclaiming himself Venezuela's acting president after the National Assembly he leads declared Maduro a usurper and illegitimate over his May re-election which was widely criticised as fraudulent.
Guaido wants to oust Maduro and set up a transitional government ahead of new elections.
Maduro - who retains the support of Venezuela's powerful military - enjoys strong support from Russia, which accuses Washington of interventionism, and China, which is concerned over the fate of billions of dollars in loans to Maduro's regime.
The socialist president warned last week that Guaido should "respect the law" and would have to "face justice" if he returns to the country.
Guaido said last week he intended to return to Venezuela "despite threats" to arrest him. The US and other allies have expressed concern for his safety.
"The challenge has gone very far," political analyst Luis Salamanca told AFP. "If he comes in and they stop him, it will generate strong internal reaction as well as internationally. Maduro is at permanent risk."
EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini warned on Saturday that any measure that would put at risk Guaido's "freedom, safety or personal integrity would represent a major escalation of tensions and meet the firm condemnation of international community".
"Guaido has grown so much politically that they haven't been able to touch him, in the traditional ways of Chavism, which is to put him in prison or force him to flee the country, harass him," said Salamanca.