Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has dismissed calls for new presidential elections ahead of fresh protests against his leadership.
In a show of defiance, he insisted his victory in polls last spring had been legitimate.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president last week, prompting an escalating power struggle.
Speaking in an interview for a Russian news agency, Mr Maduro also said he was prepared for talks with the opposition.
Mr Guaidó has been backed by the US and several other nations. He said in a tweet that he had spoken to the US president and was grateful for his support. But Venezuela’s Supreme Court has banned him from leaving the country and frozen his bank accounts.
President Nicolás Maduro has major allies too, including Russia.
Russian officials have denied reports that mercenaries from the country have been sent to protect Mr Maduro’s life.
Speaking ahead of a two-hour peaceful protest called by Mr Guaidó, Mr Maduro insisted that if the US and others wanted a fresh vote, they would have to wait until 2025. But he said he would support early parliamentary elections as “a good form of political discussion”.
“I am ready to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition so that we could talk for the good of Venezuela,” he told Russian news agency RIA in Caracas.
In a tweet, US President Donald Trump claimed Mr Maduro had agreed to negotiate following US sanctions.
But Mr Maduro said he was not prepared to accept ultimatums or blackmail, insisting that he retains the backing of Venezuela’s military.
He accused military deserters of conspiring to plot a coup.
“Military deserters have become mercenaries of the Colombian oligarchy and conspire from Colombia to divide the armed forces,” he said, without providing further details.
Also on Wednesday, Brazil’s vice president said two Chilean journalists had been detained in Venezuela and had not been released.
Why is there opposition to President Maduro?
Venezuela is facing acute economic problems and there has been an upsurge in violence in recent weeks.
Protests have been held across the country since Mr Maduro began his second term on 10 January. He was elected last year during a controversial vote in which many opposition candidates were barred from running, or jailed.
At least 40 people are believed to have died and hundreds have been arrested since 21 January, the UN says.
Hyperinflation and shortages of essentials such as food and medicine have forced millions to flee the nation.
Why is Guaidó claiming the presidency?
He says the constitution allows him, as the head of the National Assembly, to assume power temporarily when the president is deemed illegitimate.
“My duty is to call for free elections because there is an abuse of power and we live in a dictatorship,” Mr Guaidó told the BBC on Monday.
He added: “In Venezuela, we either accept domination, total oppression and torture… from Maduro’s regime, or we choose freedom, democracy and prosperity for our people.”
Mr Guaidó said the Maduro administration was “killing young poor people” in the streets.
What action is the US taking?
US officials have stated that all options to resolve the crisis “are on the table”.
On Monday Mr Bolton announced sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm PDVSA to ensure that President Maduro could “no longer loot the assets of the Venezuelan people”.
He also hinted at possible military action, reiterating that “all options are on the table”.
Mr Bolton appeared at a news briefing with a notepad showing the words “5,000 troops to Colombia”, which borders Venezuela.
On Tuesday acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan declined to say whether the Pentagon was considering sending troops. “I haven’t discussed that with Secretary Bolton,” he told reporters.
Also on Tuesday the state department issued a travel advisory urging US nationals not to go to Venezuela because of “civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary arrest and detention of US citizens”.
What about other countries?
More than 20 nations have followed the US in recognising Mr Guaidó as interim president.
But other powers including Russia, China, Mexico and Turkey have publicly backed Mr Maduro.
On Tuesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the US sanctions violated “all possible international norms” and “pledged to do everything to support the legitimate government of President Maduro”.
On Saturday, the European Union gave President Maduro an ultimatum to call elections within eight days, or the bloc would recognise Mr Guaido as president.
A group of North and South American countries has registered its opposition to outside military involvement in the country.
Peru’s Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio said the Lima Group – a 14-country body including Canada set up in 2017 to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela – was opposed to “military intervention”.
Source : BBC