Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido made plans to head for the border with Colombia to personally bring in US-supplied food and medicine in defiance of the military-backed government, raising fears of possible weekend confrontations.
Guaido, who has set a Saturday deadline for bringing in the aid, planned to depart at 6:00 am Thursday in a caravan of buses with members of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, forcing a high-stakes showdown with President Nicolas Maduro.
On Maduro's orders, the military has beefed up border security and barricaded a major border bridge to prevent the supplies from entering the country from Cucuta, Colombia, where tons of supplies are stockpiled.
Although it was unclear exactly what Guaido intends to do, he says he has enlisted hundreds of thousands of volunteers in recent days to help bring in and distribute the aid.
On Wednesday, he rallied bus drivers to go to the borders to collect aid for Venezuelans suffering shortages.
"Even though they point guns at us -- and all of us have received threats, rubber bullets and even live ones -- we are not afraid," Guaido said, standing on the back of a truck in a throng of supporters.
"We will stay out in the street with our chests bared, demanding freedom for all of Venezuela."
Shipments of food and medicine for the crisis-stricken population have become a key focus of the power struggle between Maduro and Guaido.
The 35-year-old leader of the Venezuelan legislature proclaimed himself acting president January 23, and has since won the backing of more than 50 countries.
He wants to oust Maduro, set up a transitional government and hold new elections.
"This could be very soon, between six and nine months, once Maduro's current usurpation ends," Guaido told Mexican television station Televisa.
A million volunteers
Guaido, who says 300,000 people could die without an influx of aid, says he aims to rally a million volunteers to start bringing it in by Saturday.
Addressing supporters he listed the planned transit points of entry at the Brazilian and Colombian borders, the island of Curacao and the seaports of Puerto Cabello and La Guaira.
However the pro-Maduro military has already blocked the Tienditas bridge across the Colombian border, and Vice President Delcy Rodriguez confirmed the government was shutting down air and sea links between Curacao and Venezuela.
The military said in a decree that it was banning vessels from sailing out of Venezuela's ports until Sunday to avoid actions by "criminal" groups.
Amnesty International's Americas director Erika Guevara urged authorities to "not only recognize this serious crisis... but also to guarantee access" for those bringing in aid.
Underlining the swell of international support for Guaido, British entrepreneur Richard Branson plans to hold a pro-aid concert just inside Colombia on Friday, while Maduro's government stages a rival concert on its side of the border, around 1,000 feet (300 meters) away.
US officials say the aid will reach thousands of Venezuelans and last for a few weeks. Further details of how the opposition aims to distribute it were scarce.
Private bus driver Jose Figueroa, 60, said he planned to leave Caracas in the coming days in a convoy of some 30 vehicles.
"The government is leading us to war. It will be very difficult. The situation is extremely tense," he said, as drivers parked their buses and pick-up trucks at a rally in central Caracas.
"But a bullet will kill you more quickly than hunger."
Wednesday's rally gathered just a couple of dozen buses and pick-up trucks in Guaido's support.
The pro-opposition drivers had planned to hold their rally at a major crossroads further west but found the avenue blocked by a far bigger demonstration.
Hundreds of state bus drivers rallied in the red shirts of the pro-government "Chavismo" movement, in a gathering convened by the authorities.
They yelled their loyalty to Maduro -- himself a former bus driver -- and the memory of his predecessor, the father of Venezuela's socialist "revolution," Hugo Chavez.
State-employed bus driver Julio Arocha, 53, admitted he was "negatively affected" by the crisis, "economically, psychologically", but was getting by thanks to state food handouts.
Catalyst for change
Like Maduro, Arocha blamed the crisis on foreign "aggression."
"The aggression is intensifying. The word 'humanitarian' is a euphemism," he said.
Despite sitting on the world's biggest oil reserves, Venezuela is gripped by an economic and humanitarian crisis, with acute shortages of food and medicine.
"Even if the February 23 deadline does not serve as a catalyst (for regime change), Maduro will likely pay a cost either way," wrote Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow in a note this week.
"Barring the entrance of food and medicine into the country will prompt additional international condemnation and isolation, while it will also probably fuel opposition protests and deepen popular demand for change."
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