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The Latest: Colombia leader urges China to back Maduro foes

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The latest on the political crisis in Venezuela (all times local): 8:25 p.m. The president of Colombia says China's role in Latin America would be stronger if the Asian country recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's interim president instead of backing President Nicolas Maduro.

Speaking during a visit to Washington, Ivan Duque said Thursday: "I really would advise China to make that decision." China is one of 16 countries that have publicly supported Maduro during the recent resurgence of Venezuela's political crisis. The United States, Canada, most Latin American nations and many European countries are siding with Guaido.

The Colombian leader is also urging the international community to cooperate so humanitarian aid can be taken into Venezuela on Feb. 23 as Guaido is planning. Venezuelans have been suffering with severe shortages of food and medicine amid their country's economic collapse.

Duque says that "February 23 has to be the day in which everybody mobilizes and tells the dictatorship: 'That's it. Allow the humanitarian aid.'" Duque says he considers Maduro to be a criminal against humanity who should be tried by the International Criminal Court and not granted amnesty.

7:15 p.m.

President Nicolas Maduro is inviting a U.S. special envoy to come to Venezuela after revealing in an AP interview that his foreign minister recently held secret meetings with the U.S. official in New York.

The second of two meetings took place four days after the envoy, Elliott Abrams, said the time for dialogue with Maduro's government had long passed. 

Even while criticizing Donald Trump's confrontational stance toward his socialist government, Maduro said he holds out hope of meeting the U.S. president to resolve an impasse over his recognition of opponent Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader. 

Maduro said he won't give up power and called the U.S. humanitarian aid currently sitting on the border with Colombia mere "crumbs" after the U.S. administration froze billions of dollars in Venezuela's assets.

6:15 p.m.

Russia's U.N. ambassador says Moscow is "very much concerned that some hotheads may be considering a military action against Venezuela."

Vassily Nebenzia told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that this "would be a very bad development."

Nebenzia says that even those Latin American countries supporting Venezuela's opposition against President Nicolas Maduro "are categorically against any military action and intervention into Venezuela."

He also says humanitarian aid for struggling Venezuelans that is being shipped to Venezuela's borders is being used "as a tool in the political game." He calls it a provocation that may "lead to something much worse than that."

Nebenzia says Maduro's socialist government can always ask the United Nations for humanitarian aid.

4:10 p.m.

Billionaire adventurer Richard Branson says he is throwing a concert in a campaign to raise $100 million for suffering Venezuelans and open the borders to emergency aid.

Branson released a video Thursday announcing support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, the leader of the country's congress who has declared himself interim president as part of the effort to unseat President Nicolas Maduro.

Branson says the livestreamed concert will be at the Colombian border town of Cucuta where Maduro has blocked humanitarian aid from entering. The concert featuring regional and international artists will be Feb. 22 — a day before Guaido says the opposition will try to force emergency food and medicine across the border with the help of caravans.

Branson says he's working with Guaido and to break Maduro's impasse so the aid can reach millions of Venezuelans who need it.

2:35 p.m.

Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza says that "the momentum of the coup that the government of the United States was promoting is over — it didn't happen."

He told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that the U.S. needs to rethink its strategy because "the loyalty of our armed forces has already been proved."

Arreaza dismissed a Feb. 23 deadline set by self-declared president Juan Guaido to bring badly needed food and medicine into Venezuela, saying the opposition leader doesn't control a single policeman and "whatever he says is absolutely absurd."

He said President Nicolas Maduro controls the government and is the only one who can give deadlines. Maduro is blocking the aid, saying that Venezuelans are not beggars and that the move is part of a U.S.-led coup.

Arreaza called the assistance a "spectacle that the U.S. is organizing" and denounced U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

"The U.S. has blocked our economy," he said. "The cost of this blockade is over $30 billion — and they are sending this so-called humanitarian aid for $20 million. So what is this? I'm choking you, I'm killing you, and then I'm giving you a cookie? So that's a show."

1:30 p.m.

Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza has announced the formation of a group that believes the U.N. Charter's commitment to non-interference in another country's affairs is being violated, particularly in the South American nation.

Arreaza was surrounded by diplomats from 16 countries including Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Nicaragua.

He told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday there were many more supporters.

Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour, who backed the initiative, said about 50 countries attended a meeting Wednesday.

In the next few days, Arreaza said the group "will begin a series of actions to raise awareness around the dangers that our peoples currently face," particularly in Venezuela. He refused to disclose the actions being contemplated.

Arreaza also said all people "have the right to live without the threat of use of force and without the application of illegal, coercive, unilateral measures," referring to U.S. sanctions.

1 p.m.

Venezuela's chief prosecutor says he's launched an investigation into opposition leader Juan Guaido's appointment of a transitional board of directors for the state oil company.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said Thursday in a news conference that Guaido's appointments are part of an illegal power grab.

Guaido declared last month that he has a constitutional right to presidential power as the National Assembly's head. He has support from the U.S. and about 60 countries which are urging President Nicolas Maduro to step down.

Saab says he's investigating the board members designated to oversee PDVSA and its Houston-based subsidiary Citgo. He calls the appointments by Guaido and the National Assembly a "circus."

Guaido has also appointed several ambassadors, including a representative to the United States.

12:30 p.m.

U.S. President Donald Trump will warn of "the dangers of socialism" Monday in a speech in support of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.

The White House says Thursday that Trump will travel to Florida International University in Miami to speak out against President Nicolas Maduro's government and its socialist policies.

The hardline rhetoric against socialism comes as Trump seeks to rally other nations to support Guaido (gwy-DOH'), the head of the opposition-controlled congress, whom Trump has recognized as Venezuela's rightful leader.

Trump is also looking to draw a contrast with the policies of progressive Democrats, which he brands as "socialist" as he gears up for re-election.

Trump is to spend the holiday weekend at his private club in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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