CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's chief prosecutor said Thursday he has launched an investigation into opposition leader Juan Guaido's appointment of a transitional board of directors for the state oil company.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab said the appointments by Guaido and his National Assembly are part of an illegal power grab backed by foreign governments. He also said that ambassadors of Guaido's self-declared interim government are being investigated as part of the probe.
"Clearly, this legislative body through criminal means pretends to seize national powers," Saab said in a news conference broadcast on state TV, calling the move part of a "circus."
Guaido declared last month that he has a constitutional right to presidential power as head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, calling President Nicolas Maduro's election in May a sham. Guaido currently has support from the U.S. and about 60 countries which are urging Maduro to step down.
Saab said he's looking into the board members who were designated on Wednesday to oversee PDVSA and its Houston-based subsidiary Citgo.
These people "will of course suffer legal consequences, as will the person who declared himself (president)," he said.
Magistrate Juan Mendoza of Venezuela's pro-Maduro Supreme Court later read a statement in a televised address, nullifying the appointments and accusing the National Assembly of overstepping its constitutional powers.
Guaido's representative in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, previously said the National Assembly's decision to name a new board of directors was taken to prevent Citgo from being "plundered by the dictatorship."
The standoff in Venezuela could come to a potentially violent head on Feb. 23, when Guaido says he will try to run caravans of U.S. humanitarian aid across the Colombian border into Venezuela. The United States and other countries have also said they will send supplies through Brazil and the Caribbean island of Curacao, while billionaire Richard Branson entered the fray and announced a benefit concert in the Colombian town of Cucuta.
Maduro has blocked the emergency food and medicine from entering and says that the intervention is part of a U.S. coup attempt.
But the situation now puts both leaders in a tight situation: Guaido could use successful efforts to bring in aid to regain momentum, while Maduro could be perceived as bowing to pressure if he allows the assistance to come through.
An oil-rich nation, Venezuela was once among Latin America's wealthiest and politically stable nations. However, oil production has collapsed to one-third of historic output, which critics blame on two decades of socialist rule.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump recently lodged sanctions against Venezuela's oil sector that it says could further cripple Maduro's government by cutting off an estimated $11 billion in cash-flow this year.
On Thursday, the White House said Trump will also travel to Florida International University in Miami to warn of "the dangers of socialism" in a Monday speech in support of Guaido.
But nearly three weeks after the Trump administration backed an all-out effort to force out Maduro, the embattled socialist leader is holding strong and defying predictions of an imminent demise.
In New York, Venezuela Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza announced the formation of a group that believes the U.N. Charter's commitment to non-interference in another country's affairs is being violated, particularly in the South American nation.
Surrounded by diplomats from 16 countries including Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Nicaragua, he said the group "will begin a series of actions to raise awareness around the dangers that our peoples currently face," particularly in Venezuela.
He would not disclose the actions being contemplated. But Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia later told reporters in Russian that Venezuela is considering an international conference on the rule of law and support for the U.N. Charter, which also opposes the threat or use of force.
For his part, Branson, a British music mogul who founded Virgin Group, said he would throw a livestreamed concert to raise $100 million for suffering Venezuelans.
Branson released a video announcing support for Guaido and said the concert would feature regional and international artists.
"We must break this impasse," he said of Maduro's refusal to let in humanitarian aid. "Or soon many Venezuelans will be on the verge of starvation or death."
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this story.