Pentagon stresses diplomacy in addressing Venezuela turmoil

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Hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was prepared to take military action in Venezuela, the Pentagon on Wednesday appeared to downplay any active planning by the armed forces and stressed diplomacy to stem the turmoil in the country.

Asked whether the US military had been told to prepare for a military conflict, Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said: “We, of course, always review available options and plan for contingencies.

“But in this case we have not been given (the) sort of orders that you’re discussing, no,” Wheelbarger told the House Armed Services Committee.

US Navy Admiral Craig Faller, commander of the US Southern Command, said planning included preparations for possible non-combatant evacuations and helping deliver humanitarian aid — but stressed that he was focused on building partnerships in the region.

When asked if he saw a role for the US military in toppling Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Faller said: “Our leadership’s been clear: It has to be, should be, primarily a democratic transition.

“We are in total support of the diplomacy and we stand ready to support that effort,” he said.

Venezuela was bracing Wednesday for anti-government protests called by opposition leader Juan Guaidó in a bid to exert pressure on Maduro.

Pro-Maduro rallies also were expected, a day after violent clashes erupted in the capital of Caracas following Guaidó’s call on the military to rise up against the socialist president, who claimed the insurrection had failed.

Pompeo earlier Wednesday said that “military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do,” though he reiterated that the US would prefer a peaceful transition of power.

On Tuesday, the top US diplomat said Maduro was about to flee to Cuba amid the fierce political standoff with Guaidó — until Russia intervened and convinced him to stay.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday rejected the suggestion that Moscow had persuaded Maduro not to flee, calling the assertion part of an information war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later told Pompeo that the “destructive influence” of the US in Venezuela was a violation of international law.

In a US-led phone call, Lavrov said that “Washington’s interference in Venezuelan affairs is a flagrant violation of international law” and that “this destructive influence has nothing to do with democracy,” the Russian Foreign Ministry quoted him as saying.

“The pursual of these aggressive steps is fraught with consequences,” Lavrov said, adding that “only the Venezuelan people have the right to decide their destiny.”

Meanwhile, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan canceled a planned trip to Europe to stay on top of the crisis in Venezuela.

“Secretary Shanahan will no longer travel to Europe as he has determined remaining present in DC would allow him to more effectively coordinate with (National Security Agency) and the State Department in Venezuela and to continue coordination with DHS for support along the Southwest border,” said his spokesman Joe Buccino.

Shanahan, who had planned to embark on a trip to Germany, Belgium and Britain starting Thursday, said the US had carried out “exhaustive planning” on Venezuela and had contingency plans for different scenarios.

But he stressed that the focus was on diplomatic and economic pressure.

“We are working this as a whole of government and when people say there are all options are on the table, they literally are. But we work it as much diplomatically and economically to impose pressure,” Shanahan said during a congressional hearing, according to Reuters.

The National Security Council also scheduled a meeting for Wednesday afternoon to discuss next steps on Venezuela.

On Wednesday, the top US general also said the US military was focused on gathering intelligence on the situation in Venezuela, but would be prepared to respond if President Trump requested greater action.

“The situation is a little bit unclear today from our perspective between Maduro and Guaidó,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told a congressional hearing.

“We are doing what we can now to collect intelligence and make sure we have good visibility on what is happening down in Venezuela and also be prepared to support the President should he require more from the US military,” Dunford said.

With Post Wires

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