CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Venezuelan opposition leader who has declared himself interim president vowed Friday he would remain on the streets until the South American country has a transitional government, while President Nicolas Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup.
In dueling press conferences, Juan Guaido urged his followers to stage another mass protest next week, while Maduro pushed his oft-repeated call for dialogue. Each man appeared ready to defend his claim to the presidency no matter the cost, with Guaido telling supporters that if he is arrested they should "stay the course" and peacefully protest.
But the standoff could set the scene for more violence and has plunged troubled Venezuela into a new chapter of political turmoil that rights groups say has already left more than two dozen dead as thousands take to the street demanding Maduro step down.
"They can cut a flower, but they will never keep spring from coming," Guaido told supporters Friday, alluding to a similar phrase from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Guaido's talk with reporters in a plaza in Caracas turned into a de facto rally as thousands gathered after hearing he would speak in public for the first time since taking a symbolic oath Wednesday proclaiming himself the nation's rightful leader.
The Trump administration announced it was recognizing the 35-year-old leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly quickly after his oath, leading Maduro to say that he was breaking all diplomatic ties with the United States.
Guaido's move, which was made after assurances of U.S. support, is the most direct challenge to Maduro's rule despite years of protests at home and international efforts to isolate the regime amid a growing humanitarian crisis fueled by falling oil prices and government mismanagement.
Maduro is accusing the opposition of working with the U.S. to overthrow him. Though over a dozen nations as well as the Inter-American Development Bank are recognizing Guaido as president, Maduro still has the support of the military and powerful, longtime allies like Russia and China and is vowing to defend his socialist rule.
"This is nothing more than a coup d'etat, ordered, promoted, financed and supported by the government of the United States," Maduro said Friday at the presidential palace before a room of journalists. "They intend to put a puppet government in Venezuela, destroy the state and take colonial control of the country."
But he added that he was still willing to talk with the opposition even if he "had to go naked."
Both sides attempted dialogue last year, but it fell apart as Maduro pushed forward with an early election that the country's most popular opposition leaders were barred from running in. Many in the international community condemned that vote and now consider the National Assembly, which Maduro has stripped of its power, the only legitimate institution.
On Friday, Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Latin America department, told the state RIA Novosti news agency that Moscow is ready to play mediator between Venezuela's government and the opposition. The U.N. Security Council is meeting Saturday on the crisis.
The standoff is taking place as international concern over repression by state security forces during the days of political upheaval mounts.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet's office said Friday it has credible reports that security forces or members of pro-government armed groups have shot at least 20 people during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday and is calling for an investigation. The total figure is likely higher: The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict says 21 people were killed by gunfire in protests and looting on Wednesday and Thursday, on top of five deaths authorities confirmed Tuesday.
The Penal Forum human rights group says that 369 people have been detained since Monday.
"The international community is watching more closely than ever before, so Venezuelan security forces - and those commanding them - should know they will be held to account for any abuses," Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.
U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats are finding themselves caught in the crosshairs. On Wednesday, Maduro gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country — an order Washington said it would defy by keeping the embassy open, though it told non-essential staff to leave.
On Friday morning, a caravan of black SUVs escorted a contingent of U.S. embassy workers and their families to the Caracas airport. They were later seen checking into an American Airlines flight.
Maduro, meanwhile, has recalled all Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S. and ordered the nation's embassy and consulates there closed. Guaido, seeking to sidestep Maduro, has urged all American and Venezuelan staff to stay in their posts.
Amid the tension, the U.S. on Friday named Elliot Abrams, a hawkish former Republican official, to handle American policy toward Venezuela.
Standing before a podium with the Venezuelan coat of arms, Guaido said Friday that he would release the text of an amnesty law that would pardon members of the military who cooperate in restoring democracy and asked Venezuelans to share it with officers they know.
The military is the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela and the armed forces' top brass has pledged its loyalty to Maduro, though security experts note that many within the lower ranks are disgruntled over low wages rendered practically worthless by hyperinflation.
Still, most consider it a long shot for Guaido to win the military's support.
"Stand on the side of the people," he urged the armed forces.
Maduro has not shown any hint he's ready to cede power. He called Guaido on Friday "an agent for the gringos in Venezuela," using a sometimes derogatory term for Americans. But he also said that he would be willing to talk with U.S. President Donald Trump and the opposition.
"I'm not anti-American," he said. "I'm anti-imperialist."
Maduro's administration looked to discredit Guaido on Friday by broadcasting security camera footage that Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said shows the young opposition leader entering a meeting with ruling socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello the night before declaring himself president.
Cabello has alleged that Guaido held a secret meeting with him Tuesday night and admitted to being under enormous pressure from the U.S. Guaido denied having met with Cabello.
The security footage shows a man looking down and dressed in a gray hoody, making it essentially impossible to identify him. In response, supporters on social media launched the hashtag "GuaidoChallenge," urging people to share photos of themselves disguised in hoodies.
Guaido, in his remarks earlier Friday, said he'd be willing to talk with any party willing to discuss restoring democracy, but short of that, he said there would be more protests.
"There will be people on the street," Guaido clamored, "until we get freedom."
Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Manuel Rueda, Fabiola Sanchez and Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Matthew Lee in Washington, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.