Military police surrounded Venezuela's Embassy in Brazil Wednesday as rival supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó and President Nicolás Maduro faced off inside in a struggle for control of the diplomatic compound.
The embassy drama unfolded as President Jair Bolsonaro met nearby at the Foreign Ministry with China's President Xi Jinping ahead of a summit of the BRICS countries.
It was not immediately clear which side was in control of the Embassy. A Brazilian Foreign Ministry representative was inside the compound in an attempt to end the stand-off.
Guaidó's appointed ambassador, Teresa Belandria, said in a statement that staff members at the Embassy "voluntarily" opened its doors early Wednesday to officials working for her.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the Embassy, many of them supporters of Brazil's left-wing Workers Party (PT), yelling "Viva Maduro," "Drug dealer Guaidó" and "Free Lula," the Brazilian leftist icon released from jail on Friday.
Police detained two people after scuffles broke out between Guaidó and Maduro supporters.
The last Maduro-appointed ambassador to Brazil was withdrawn in 2016.
In her statement, Belandria asked that all accredited officials at the embassy and Venezuela's seven consulates in Brazil recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president.
More than 50 countries, including Brazil, recognized the Venezuelan opposition leader as acting president earlier this year after rejecting Maduro's re-election as fraudulent.
BRICS titans China and Russia, however, back Maduro.
"Upon entering the headquarters, we could verify that a group of officials was living in the official residence," said Belandria, who is not inside the embassy.
Freddy Menegotti, a senior embassy official loyal to Maduro, said "strangers to our facilities are entering and are violating the Venezuelan territory," according to a voice recording sent to the PT and shared with AFP.
"We need help, we need the immediate activation of all social movements and political parties," Menegotti said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza condemned what he described as an invasion of the embassy.
"We hold the Government of Brazil responsible for the safety of our staff and facilities," Arreaza tweeted.
"It is a delicate situation," said Paulo Pimenta, a member of PT, in a voice recording sent to AFP via WhatsApp. Pimenta said he was among 10 Brazilians to enter the embassy in the morning.
Hours after the confrontation began, Bolsonaro tweeted: "We reject the interference of external actors. We are taking the necessary steps to safeguard public order and prevent acts of violence."
Venezuela's economy has been devastated by a political and economic crisis that has forced millions to flee, many of them into neighbouring Brazil.
The BRICS summit will be the first time Bolsonaro, notoriously awkward at public events, has hosted a major international gathering since he took office in January.
Along with Xi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will attend the annual gathering.
Bolsonaro – an ardent admirer of US President Donald Trump with whom he shares a contempt for multilateralism and left-wing ideology – is under pressure from Brazil's powerful beef, farming and mining sectors to stay on good terms with China, the Latin American country's biggest trade partner.
The far-right leader had threatened to torpedo the relationship during last year's election campaign when he accused China of "buying Brazil," and his pro-business government has been trying to repair the damage ever since.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Xi, Bolsonaro said he hoped Beijing and Brasilia could "diversify our trade relations" – sentiments echoed by the Chinese leader.
There was no mention of Venezuela or the confrontation at the Embassy.
Moscow and Beijing have been major lenders to Caracas in exchange for oil supplies.
Putin met with Maduro in Moscow in September, where he reiterated support for his Venezuelan counterpart and called on all sides to end the country's crisis.