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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told his Russian counterpart on Monday Washington would “not stand idly by” while Russia throws its weight behind Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, after two Russian air force planes with scores of troops reportedly landed in the OPEC nation.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stands next to his airplane before boarding it to Beirut at Ben Gurion airport near Lod, Israel March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young/Pool
The Russian planes and nearly 100 military personnel arrived outside the Venezuelan capital Caracas on Saturday, according to local media reports.. If confirmed, the arrival could underscore a strengthening of ties between Moscow and Maduro’s embattled socialist government.
Pompeo spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Venezuela on Monday, State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.
The statement did not specifically mention reports about the Russian planes but condemned any Russian military support for the “illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro.”
“The secretary called on Russia to cease its unconstructive behavior,” Palladino said in a statement.
During the call with Lavrov, Pompeo urged Moscow to join the United States and regional countries in backing opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Bloomberg news, citing an unnamed Venezuelan information ministry official, reported that the landing of the Russian air force planes was in line with long-term Russia-Venezuela military accords. The purpose of the visit was to perform maintenance on Russian military equipment that Venezuela had purchased, Bloomberg reported.
The information ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the presence of the planes or the Bloomberg report.
The United States believes up to 100 Russian military personnel may have disembarked but it was unclear how many of them might have stayed and how many returned to the aircraft, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified. The official declined to speculate about their purpose in Venezuela.
Russia has warned the United States and neighbors against a military intervention in Venezuela.
U.S. President Donald Trump said in 2017 that the “military option” was on the table when it comes to Venezuela, but administration officials have since downplayed talk of armed intervention.
The Trump administration has imposed crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s crucial oil industry. On Friday it sanctioned its development bank, Bandes, in efforts to choke off financial flows to Maduro’s government and called on Venezuelan military leaders to abandon him.
Maduro has denounced the sanctions as U.S. intervention and maintains diplomatic backing from Russia, China and Cuba.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Editing by Susan Thomas and Tom Brown