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Venezuela begins crucial week in humanitarian aid stand-off

Venezuela’s crisis was deepening Monday as opposition leader Juan Guaido’s deadline to let in desperately needed humanitarian aid loomed, and President Nicolas Maduro showed no sign of backing down on blocking the shipments.

Opposition officials hit out at state internet provider CANTV on Monday for blocking the website where volunteers are signing up to help bring in the aid, mostly supplied by the United States but stockpiled in Colombia just over the border from Venezuela.

Bringing in humanitarian aid is crucial to Guaido, who has given Maduro’s government until Saturday to let the shipments into the country.

Guaido is recognized as interim president by 50 countries in his challenge to socialist leader Maduro’s authority.

Venezuela is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis due to shortages of food and medicine exacerbated by hyperinflation.

“On February 23 we have the opportunity to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans,” Guaido said on Sunday.

The 35-year-old, who caused a sensation last month by declaring himself the country’s acting president, has set a target of signing up a million volunteers to help bring in the aid, with 600,000 already registered.

Last week, CANTV had also redirected traffic from the volunteer website to an almost identical-looking page in another bid to slow down the mobilization.

– Committed to change –

On Monday a second aid collection center is due to begin operations in Brazil’s northeastern state of Roraima, which borders Venezuela.

A third center is due to open this week in the Dutch island of Curacao, off Venezuela’s north coast.

“We are committed to achieving change in Venezuela,” said Guaido on Twitter.

He also paid tribute to his predecessor as leader of the opposition Voluntud Popular party Leopoldo Lopez, who was imprisoned five years ago — although he is currently serving his sentence under house arrest.

“The freedom we are about to reach will be a testament to the sacrifice of many,” said Guaido.

Tensions mounted on Sunday with Guaido branding the government “irrational” for expelling five visiting European lawmakers.

The members of the European Parliament were being tossed out with no explanation, said Spanish MEP Esteban Gonzalez Pons, who led a group including fellow Spaniards Jose Ignacio Salafranca and Gabriel Mato Adrover, as well as Esther de Lange of the Netherlands and Paulo Rangel of Portugal.

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the Europeans had “conspiratorial aims” and were sent back from the country’s main Maiquetia airport.

The humanitarian aid standoff is due to come to a head on Saturday.

Caravans of buses are due to carry volunteers to border entry points to meet and transport arriving cargo. Guaido has kept to himself how he plans to overcome the border barriers put up by the Venezuelan military, on Maduro’s orders.

Volunteer groups have begun meeting in “humanitarian camps” in several Venezuelan states to organize and prepare for the aid arrival.

An imploding economy has driven an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans to migrate from the oil-rich country.

Maduro, who denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, dismisses the opposition moves as a “political show” and a cover for a US invasion.

“Venezuela is preparing for the humanitarian avalanche,” Guaido told about 4,000 supporters clad in white T-shirts and green scarves who gathered Saturday to sign up as volunteers.

He says Maduro is illegitimate due to his reelection last year in polls widely condemned as fraudulent.

– An ‘international crime’ –

“Whoever prevents the entry of humanitarian aid is condemned to spend the rest of their lives fleeing international justice, because that is an international crime,” said US senator Marco Rubio when visiting the Colombian collection center in Cucuta on Sunday.

Three US military cargo planes delivered several dozen more tons (tonnes) of food assistance to Cucuta on Saturday.

Another US aircraft is due in Curacao from Miami on Tuesday.

Venezuelans based in Miami held their own drive, putting together 1,000 crates of food to send to their homeland.

On Friday, Maduro instructed his army to prepare a “special deployment plan” for the 2,200-kilometer (1,370-mile) border with Colombia.

Guaido has ordered the armed forces to let the aid pass, but they remain loyal to Maduro’s regime.

Maduro has dismissed the humanitarian assistance as “crumbs” and “rotten and contaminated food” while blaming shortages of food and medicine on US sanctions.

For analyst Benigno Alarcon, “as the regime closes the door on humanitarian aid, it closes it to a peaceful solution to the political situation in the country.”

Guaido announced that British billionaire Richard Branson was organizing a concert for February 22 in Cucuta with renowned international artists to raise money for the relief effort.

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