In dramatic scenes, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets with activist Leopoldo López and a small contingent of heavily armed soldiers early Tuesday in a bold call for the military to rise up and oust socialist leader Nicolás Maduro.
"I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers," said López in his first public appearance since being detained in 2014 for leading anti-government protests. "Everyone should come to the streets, in peace."
López said he has been freed by members of the military responding to an order by Guaidó, whom the United States and dozens of other governments recognise as Venezuela's rightful leader.
As López spoke, there were sporadic efforts with tear gas to break up the protesters who gathered on a highway overpass in wealthier eastern Caracas. It appeared to have been fired from inside the La Carlota air base. But more people gathered as they sensed what could be their strongest opportunity yet to overthrow the government.
"It's now or never," said one of the young soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna preferred by the few dozen soldiers who stood alongside Guaidó and López.
Socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello downplayed the significance of the rebellion, saying most of Caracas was in complete calm. He called on government supporters to amass at the presidential palace to defend Maduro from what he said was a US-backed coup attempt.
The tumultuous events started when Guaidó appeared in an early morning video shot next to the air base. He was surrounded by the heavily armed soldiers backed by a few armoured vehicles.
Guaido said soldiers who had taken to the streets were protecting Venezuela's Constitution.
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez said on Twitter that Maduro's government is confronting a small "coup attempt" led by military "traitors" backed by right-wing opponents.
"We are currently facing and deactivating a small group of treacherous military personnel who took positions in the Altamira distributor road [in Caracas] to promote a coup d'ètat," Rodríguez posted on Twitter.
"We call on the people to remain on maximum alert to – with our glorious National Bolivarian Armed Forces – defeat the attempted coup and preserve peace," he said.
Venezuela's Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López asserted on Twitter that the situation in military barracks and bases in the country was "normal."
Tensions in Venezuela have been ratcheted up to a critical level this year, after Guaidó, who is head of the opposition-ruled congress, announced January 23 that he was the acting president under the Constitution. He said Maduro had been fraudulently re-elected last year.
The United States and major Latin American powers including Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Chile swiftly backed Guaidó, followed later on by the European Union.
But Maduro, who since taking over from his late mentor Hugo Chávez in 2013 has presided over a catastrophic economic implosion, has been able to count on support from Russia and China, Venezuela's two biggest creditors.
Although US President Donald Trump has repeatedly said "all options" are on the table regarding Venezuela – including, implicitly, military action – there has been no noticeable US military mobilisation.
Instead, Washington has upped the economic pressure, through sanctions aimed at Maduro's regime and by cutting sales of Venezuelan oil – the country's main revenue earner.
It also warned against any attempt to arrest Guaidó, who has been left free to roam Venezuela and hold rallies.
Maduro and his government have repeatedly accused the United States of trying to foment a coup, and blame the economic devastation in the country on the tightening US sanctions.
In Madrid, the government warned against a "bloodbath."