A key group of European Union countries endorsed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's interim president on Monday, piling the pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro to resign and let the country hold a new presidential election.
Maduro, for his part, stood defiant and accused the United States of preparing a coup in the South American country. He also said he is trying to recruit the pope's support for the opening of talks on Venezuela's future.
Spain, Germany, France and Britain delivered diplomatic blows to Maduro's rule by publicly supporting Guaido after giving Maduro a Sunday deadline to call a presidential election, which he didn't heed. Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Portugal also lined up behind Guaido, the self-declared interim president who also has the support of the United States and many South American nations.
The European countries urged Guaido to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible.
"We are working for the return of full democracy in Venezuela: human rights, elections and no more political prisoners," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a televised announcement.
He said Spain, which has a large Venezuelan community, is also working on a humanitarian aid program for Venezuela, where shortages of basic items are acute. Critics of Maduro blame the Venezuelan government's mismanagement for the lack of food and medical supplies.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman, James Slack, said Britain is considering imposing sanctions to help bring about change in Venezuela.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Japan on Monday that Guaido "is the legitimate interim president."
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking to France Inter Radio, appealed for an early presidential election that will ensure "the Venezuelan crisis ends peacefully."
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said the election that brought Maduro to power was neither free nor fair and told Swedish broadcaster SVT on Monday that Venezuelans "now must get new, free and fair elections instead."
Guaido's backers say he is the legitimate leader because he is president of Venezuela's congress, which they regard as the only lawfully elected power in the country.
Around 1 million people resident in Venezuela also possess a European passport, Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva told a news conference in Lisbon.
Western Hemisphere nations were set to add to the pressure Monday during a meeting in Canada of the Lima Group, which includes 13 countries that have been vocal in denouncing Maduro. But the socialist leader showed no signs of caving in and lashed out at the EU and the Trump administration, which has also put pressure on the Venezuelan government by imposing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports and demanding Maduro's departure. "I don't accept ultimatums from anybody," Maduro told Spanish TV channel La Sexta in an interview broadcast late Sunday. "Why should the EU be giving ultimatums to a country?" He added that Venezuela is being "threatened by the biggest powers in the world." Turning to Washington's role in the Venezuelan crisis, Maduro claimed that "the military option is on (U.S. President) Donald Trump's table." "The United States wants to return to the 20th century of military coups, subordinate puppet governments and the looting of resources," Maduro said. Maduro said Monday he has written to Pope Francis asking for help in fostering dialogue. Maduro said in an interview with Italy's Sky TG24 that he hopes the letter is in route or has reached the Vatican. Maduro said he has asked Francis to "facilitate and reinforce" dialogue on Venezuela's crisis. Some of the EU countries backing Guaido are part of a newly formed "International Contact Group" of eight European and four Latin American nations. It aims to address the crisis in Venezuela and is due to hold its first meeting in Uruguay on Thursday. Santos Silva, the Portuguese diplomat, said the Contact group wants to end Venezuela's political stalemate through the ballot box, preventing a civil war or an "illegitimate foreign intervention."