Three members of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle agreed with the opposition that he “had to go” but then backtracked, US officials have said.
It comes after the opposition leader Juan Guaidó called on the military to help him end Mr Maduro’s rule.
Protesters took to the streets in the capital Caracas in support on Tuesday.
But military leaders appeared to be standing behind Mr Maduro, accusing Mr Guaidó of an attempted coup.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also alleged the president had been prepared to leave the country on Tuesday and fly to Cuba but was talked down by Russia. He has offered no evidence of the claim.
“They had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it. Russians indicated he should stay,” Mr Pompeo told broadcaster CNN.
Who were the officials?
US National Security Advisor John Bolton has alleged Venezuela’s Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino was one of the men involved in three months of negotiations with the opposition.
However, Mr Padrino appeared on television surrounded by soldiers on Tuesday, asserting their continued loyalty to Mr Maduro.
Mr Bolton also named Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala.
He said they had committed to “to achieve the peaceful transition of power from the Maduro clique” to Mr Guaidó, who the US, UK and a number of the other countries recognise as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
“All agreed that Maduro had to go,” Mr Bolton told reporters in Washington.
Mr Bolton offered no evidence that Mr Maduro’s loyalists were preparing to abandon him. The assertions were later repeated by Elliott Abrams, the US envoy for Venezuela.
What’s happening in Venezuela?
A power struggle between Mr Maduro and Mr Guaidó, who is leader of the opposition-held National Assembly, has been brewing since January.
Mr Guaidó declared himself as interim leader and has been recognised by dozens of countries but Mr Maduro has held on to power.
This morning Mr Guaidó appeared in social media video alongside another opposition leader, Leopoldo López, who had been under house arrest since being found guilty of inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014.
In it, he declared he was in the “final phase” of ending President Maduro’s rule and announced he had the support of “brave soldiers” in Caracas.
“The National Armed Forces have taken the correct decision… they are guaranteed to be on the right side of history,” he said.
However, the entire military did not appear to be backing Mr Guaidó as the morning continued.
The BBC’s Guillermo Olmo, in Caracas, said Tuesday marked the most violent episode of the Venezuelan political crisis so far.
There were running clashes between Mr Guaidó’s supporters and armed military vehicles. Protesters were also seen throwing rocks, but being repelled by tear gas and water cannon.
Television cameras also caught the moment armoured vehicles drove into a crowd. It is unclear if there were any injuries in that incident.
Venezuela’s health ministry said 69 people had been injured across the country.
Read more about Venezuela’s crisis:
By the end of the day, Mr López, who leads the Popular Will party of which Mr Guaidó is a member, and his family had reportedly entered Chile’s embassy in Caracas to seek protection, Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
A failure, or more to come?
by Katy Watson, BBC News
Tuesday’s events have definitely been dramatic. But it’s not clear where it leaves Venezuela.
Juan Guaidó made a bold move by saying the armed forces were on his side early in the morning. And the fact that opposition politician Leopoldo López, who was under house arrest, stood beside him was also big surprise. Who had freed him and what did that say about the loyalties of the armed forces?
But as the day went on, little clarity emerged – who exactly is behind this so-called uprising? For Juan Guaidó to achieve the regime change he’s promised, he needs the generals at the top on his side. So far though, at least publicly, they remain loyal to Mr Maduro.
The situation on the ground is still confusing – but the confidence that the opposition had at the beginning of the day looks like it’s waning.
Leopoldo López and his family are now “guests” at the Chilean residence in Caracas – is that a sign that once again, the opposition’s attempts to take power have failed, or is there another dramatic twist to come?
What has the reaction been?
Members of Mr Maduro’s administration have disavowed Tuesday’s events as a “coup attempt” by Mr Guaidó.
But US government officials have restated their support of the challenger.
In a tweet, President Donald Trump also threatened to issue a “full and complete” embargo and the highest-level sanctions against Cuba if its military did not immediately cease its support for Mr Maduro’s government.
Other members of the international community have also been responding to the sudden escalation in events:
- UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for both sides to avoid violence
- Spain warned against bloodshed and said was “not supporting any military coup”
- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – who backs Mr Guaidó – has called an emergency meeting with his defence minister, foreign minister and vice-president
- Colombian President Iván Duque called on the Venezuelan army to back Mr Guaidó
- Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez have sent messages of support to their ally Mr Maduro, condemning what they called the “coup d’etat” in Venezuela
- The Lima Group of Latin American countries have said they will hold an emergency meeting on Friday