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Maduro claims envoy met officials in US, as showdown grows nearer in Venezuela

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on February 09, 2019 shows the president of Venezuela's National Assembly and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido (L) and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (R) delivering speeches in Caracas on Febru
Federico PARRA, Juan BARRETO (AFP/File)
Humanitarian crisis worsens, as aid becomes pawn in diplomatic show of wills.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has admitted one of his top officials held two meetings with a prominent US diplomat.

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, a harsh critic of the United States, traveled recently to New York to meet with the US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams.

The first meeting lasted "two hours and the second three hours, a day later," Maduro told news agency Associated Press in a video released on Thursday.

"I invited Elliott Abrams to come to Venezuela -- in private, in public, in secret. All he has to do is say where, when and how, and I'll be there," added Maduro.

Laura BONILLA CAL (AFP)

Maduro's allegations come as a military showdown could be brewing in the oil-rich, cash-poor country. 

Next week the opposition will try and lead a caravan of aid into the country, but military forces loyal to embattled President Nicolas Maduro threaten to block them.

Diplomats who gathered at the Organization of American States, an institute just blocks from the White House, believe the outcome will be positive. H.E. Gustavo Tarre, Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States from Venezuela, certainly does.  

Guaido, the country’s interim president, was supposed to speak via Skype from Venezuela to the diplomats at the gathering, but an apparent rolling blackout there cut him off. 

"We support the legitimate government of interim President Juan Guaido," U.S. Special Representative to Venezuela Elliot Abrams said to the crowd.

On Wednesday, President Trump met with his Colombian counterpart to compare notes on ousting Maduro. So far, the U.S. has imposed sanctions and is leading humanitarian relief efforts, but The President said the military option is always on the table.

"Our militaries are very focused and working together," Trump said in the White House during a meeting with Colombia’s president.

But seasoned Venezuela watchers worry a U.S. military intervention could turn a bad situation worse.

"I think it’s not a good idea for the United States to think of acting unilaterally, militarily in Venezuela," former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega says. "I don’t think it’s really being considered in a serious way."

As for the Venezuelan military, there is no clear sign at the moment that they are switching loyalties, and there’s no certainty what will happen next week when the opposition and the Maduro regime face off.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down the significance of Maduro's offer for talks.

"The fact that he has publicly said he wants to talk with the United States is not new, but I think it demonstrates his increasing understanding that the Venezuelan people are rejecting him and his model of governance," said Pompeo during a visit to Iceland.

Federico PARRA (AFP)

-- Humanitarian aid as hostage --

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro hit out at the United States on Friday for "stealing" billions of dollars and offering "crumbs" in return as humanitarian aid.

Tons of US aid is piling up in Colombia close to the border with Venezuela as opposition leader Juan Guaido has vowed to defy Maduro's efforts to block the supplies from entering the country.

The US military had been recruited in delivering an ever growing aid package through neighbor Colombia, with national security adviser to the president John Bolton announcing on Thursday that 25 countries had "pledged $100 million in humanitarian assistance."

"It's a booby trap, they're putting on a show with rotten and contaminated food," said Maduro, speaking at an event in the southeastern town of Ciudad Bolivar.

"They've stolen $30 billion and are offering four crumbs of rotten food," added the beleaguered socialist leader, referring to the United States.

PABLO PORCIUNCULA (AFP)

Speaking on Friday, Maduro said six million families had benefitted from subsidized food boxes and claimed to have bought this week 933 tons of medicines and medical supplies from China, Cuba and Russia, his main international allies.

"We paid for it with our own money because we're beggars to no one," he said.

Guaido accuses Maduro of being a "usurper" over his controversial reelection last year in polls widely branded fraudulent.

Maduro says the 35-year-old National Assembly speaker is a puppet to the US which is trying to secure access to Venezuela's gold and vast oil reserves -- the largest in the world.

He said Guaido's challenge to his authority is "treason."

"The worst thing is stimulating the imperial madness of an extremist Ku Klux Klan government in the White House," said Maduro.

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