CARACAS: A high-ranking Venezuelan general called on the armed forces to rebel against President Nicolas Maduro and to recognise the opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim chief as huge crowds rallied against the head of state, adding pressure on Maduro to step down.

The military’s support is crucial for the embattled Maduro, who is unpopular largely due to an unprecedented economic crisis that has prompted an exodus of millions, but claims he is victim of a coup directed by the US.

The general’s defection came as tens of thousands of opposition supporters turned out at rallies nationwide to protest against Maduro and show support for Guaido.

Washington, along with many countries in the western hemisphere, has recognised Guaido as the legitimate president, arguing that Maduro stole his second term, and imposed potentially crippling sanctions this week that are likely to further weaken the Opec nation’s struggling oil industry.

While small rebellions against Maduro have broken out in Venezuela’s armed forces in recent months, there has been no large scale military uprising against him.

“People of Venezuela, 90% of the armed forces of Venezuela are not with the dictator, they are with the people of Venezuela,” General Francisco Yanez of the air force’s high command said in a video circulating on Twitter on Saturday. “Given the happenings of the last few hours, already the transition to democracy is imminent.”

On its Twitter account, the air force’s high command accused the general of treason. Yanez is the first active Venezuelan general to recognise Guaido since he proclaimed himself president. Venezuela’s chief military attache to the US also said he was defecting last week. Mireanna Fernandez, a 20-year-old student at a protest in the city of Ciudad Guayana, said before Guaido’s January 23 proclamation she wanted to leave Venezuela, but now she had hope that Maduro’s government would end.

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