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Protesters mass in Venezuela, for and against Maduro

Opposition activists pour to the streets to back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's calls for early elections, in Caracas on February 2, 2019 (AFP Photo/Federico PARRA)

Caracas (AFP) - Protesters flowed into the streets of Caracas Saturday, with flags and placards, many to support opposition leader Juan Guaido's calls for democratic elections and others to back embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

Carrying Venezuelan flags and blowing horns and whistles, Guaido's supporters planned to converge on the European Union headquarters in eastern Caracas from five staging areas around the city.

The EU and major European powers have given Maduro until Sunday to call "free elections" or they will recognize Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the crisis-torn country's acting president.

Underscoring the high stakes, a Venezuelan air force general announced Saturday he rejected Maduro's "dictatorial" authority and pledged his allegiance to Guaido, in a video posted on social media.

The pro-Maduro forces were rallying in the western side of the city to mark the 20th anniversary of the rise of power of the late Hugo Chavez, the leftist firebrand who installed a socialist government.

Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, is facing the most serious challenge to his legitimacy yet, with the United States, Canada and nearly a dozen Latin American countries piling on pressure for his removal from office.

Hundreds of members of a civilian militia, public workers and people who have benefitted from the government's social programs began to concentrate in the downtown Avenida Bolivar in a show of support for their beleaguered leader.

Although the rally was called by Maduro, it was not known if he would attend.

If he does, it would be the first time he has appeared in public since August 4, when he claimed to have been the target of an exploding drone at a military parade in Caracas.