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The United States on Friday signaled it was ready to step up economic measures to try to drive Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power as some U.S. diplomats left the embassy in Caracas and Russia vowed to back its socialist South American ally.

The U.S. Treasury Department stopped short of announcing a freeze on Venezuela’s U.S. assets and accounts, but said it would take steps to ensure commercial transactions were “consistent” with its recognition this week of opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday will urge members of the United Nations Security Council to recognize Guaido. Washington requested the meeting of the 15-member council after a string of countries threw their weight behind Guaido, who heads Venezuela’s congress, and urged Maduro to step down.

Pompeo will be accompanied by former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams, who he named on Friday to lead U.S. efforts on Venezuela. Abrams is a neoconservative who has long advocated an activist U.S. role in the world.

Russia opposes the U.S. efforts and has accused Washington of backing a coup attempt, placing Venezuela at the heart of a growing geopolitical duel.

Private military contractors who carry out secret missions for Russia have flown into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for Maduro, sources said.

Maduro said he welcomed the U.N. debate. “Thanks, Mike,” he said, tongue in cheek, during a Friday news conference. “We’re going to tell the truth about the articles of the constitution, about the coup.”

Maduro on Wednesday ordered U.S. diplomats out of the country within 72 hours. On Friday, some American diplomats left the U.S. embassy in Caracas in a convoy of vehicles with a police escort en route to the airport, according to a Reuters witness.

U.N. human rights boss Michelle Bachelet called on Friday for an investigation into alleged excessive use of force by Venezuelan security forces against anti-Maduro protesters in recent days, adding that she was “extremely concerned” that the situation could rapidly spiral out of control.


Maduro Venezuelan ally
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