CARACAS • Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro is preparing to rally his military supporters as the US and key allies backed a challenge from his leading rival, who declared himself "acting president".
The announcement by Mr Juan Guaido, 35, head of Venezuela's opposition-led legislature, came amid a fresh wave of deadly street clashes on Wednesday.
He declared himself acting leader of the oil-rich nation, which has lurched into economic chaos and violence under Mr Maduro, 56.
The socialist government responded by warning that the top military leadership would come out yesterday "in support of the constitutional president", Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said. He added that the military would show "backing for the sovereignty" of Venezuela.
That was a warning shot to Mr Maduro's foreign critics as they rallied behind Mr Guaido.
US President Donald Trump declared Mr Maduro "illegitimate" and called the National Assembly legislature "the only legitimate branch of government".
A furious Mr Maduro responded to the US move by breaking off diplomatic ties with the "imperialist" US government, giving its diplomats 72 hours to leave.
The US State Department said it did not recognise Mr Maduro as president any more, so his order meant nothing.
A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, warned Mr Maduro and his loyalists that Washington was ready to ramp up oil, gold and other sanctions and take unspecified actions "if they choose to harm any of the National Assembly members or any of the other duly legitimate officials of the government of Venezuela".
Asked whether he was considering US military intervention, Mr Trump told reporters: "We're not considering anything, but all options are on the table."
France, Britain and the European Union yesterday added their support for Mr Guaido, although the European Commission, the EU's executive, declined to explicitly recognise Mr Guaido as the country's interim leader and called for a political process leading to new elections.
Mr Maduro's key ally Russia, meanwhile, denounced Mr Guaido's bid as a "usurpation" of power and condemned what it called foreign "interference" in Venezuela.
Mr Maduro's key financial backer China also weighed in. Foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said China opposes "interference" in Venezuelan affairs and called for a "political resolution".
A dozen regional players have also backed Mr Guaido, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Canada. Mexico and Cuba stood firm in support of Mr Maduro.
Mr Guaido's pronouncement capped days of unrest that have seen 13 people killed, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict told Agence France-Presse.
They were the first mass street protests in Venezuela since a peak of violence in April and July 2017 when 125 people died in clashes.
Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition protesters in one Caracas suburb, while television pictures also showed armoured vehicles in the capital.
Thousands of Mr Maduro supporters, many wearing red, converged outside the presidential palace Miraflores to oppose what they said was a US-backed opposition coup attempt.
Elsewhere in Caracas, tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied, dressed in white and waving Venezuelan flags.
"Guaido, friend, the people are with you," they chanted.
Mr Maduro was re-elected in May in snap elections boycotted by the opposition and denounced around the world as illegitimate.
He has held on to power in the face of mass protests, international pressure and opposition efforts to oust him.
Analysts at the Eurasia Group consultancy said his opponents could only prevail if the top military command abandons him.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE