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Maduro bows to protesters, calls for snap elections

media Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a government rally, his first public appearance in 6 months, in Caracas, 02 February 2019 REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Venezuela's embattled leader Nicolas Maduro agreed to calls for early parliamentary elections on Saturday, as he attempts to claw back lost ground from opposition leader Juan Guaido, amid defections from his top military brass.

In a speech to thousands of supporters, Maduro said he "agree[d]" and was "commit[ted] to holding parliamentary elections this year," as demanded by the National Assembly.

The shock announcement comes ahead of a crucial Sunday deadline from major European countries to Maduro to hold presidential elections this year; a move he had previously described as blackmail.

"They (the opposition) want to bring forward elections, let's have elections," he said defiantly.

Maduro has clung on to power despite a worsening economic crisis which has seen millions of people flee Venezuela.

Last week, the head of the National Assembly Juan Guaido proclaimed himself the rightful head of state, and received the recognition of the United States and several Latin American countries.

EU countries, including France, say they too will recognize Guaido unless he holds presidential elections by the end of this year.

Army defections

The 35-year-old lawmaker on Saturday mobilized thousands of Venezuelans against the government in mass demonstrations across the country, with more rallies planned for 12 February.

Guaido’s call for a massive show of popular support coincided with a huge pro-Maduro demonstration.

The ruling Socialist party on Saturday celebrated the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s deceased predecessor.

A former bus driver, Maduro came to power in 2013 after Chavez' death.

He hadn't appeared in public since an alleged drone attack on 4 August at a military parade, which left seven soldiers injured.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's armed forces have begun distancing themselves from the embattled leader, including a high ranking general.

Others to follow

In a video on social media, General Francisco Esteban Yanez Rodriguez claimed that 90 percent of the country's armed forces "are not with the dictator, they are with the people of Venezuela".

Yanez went on to disavow the "dictatorial" authority of Maduro and said he recognised Juan Guaido, the self-declared interim president, as Venezuela's leader.

The US, still Venezuela's main trading partner, said it hopes other officers will follow suit.

"The US calls on all military members to follow General Yanez's lead, and to protect the peaceful protestors supporting democracy," National Security Advisor John Bolton said in a tweet.

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