Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says he has written a letter to Pope Francis urging him to play a mediating role in his country’s political crisis.
“I have written a letter to Pope Francis […] saying that I serve the cause of Christ,” Maduro tells Italian news channel SkyTg24, declaring himself a practising Catholic.
“In this spirit, I asked him to help us in a process of facilitating and strengthening dialogue,” Maduro adds, mentioning other mediation efforts by Mexico, Uruguay, Bolivia and others.
“I ask the pope to offer his best efforts, his will, to help us on this path of dialogue. I hope we will have a positive answer [from him],” Mr Maduro says.
Also, Mr Maduro has said he cannot rule out the possibility of civil war as pressure mounts on him to stand down.
In a TV interview, he warned that U.S. President Donald Trump would leave the White House “stained with blood” if he intervened in the crisis.
He also defiantly rejected the EU’s Sunday deadline to call snap elections.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president in January and won U.S. backing.
He said on Sunday he would build an international coalition to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuelans but Mr Maduro has accused him of organising a coup.
“Everything depends on the level of madness and aggressiveness of the Northern Empire [the US] and its Western allies.
“We ask that nobody intervenes in our internal affairs… and we prepare ourselves to defend our country,’’ Mr Maduro said.
Mr Trump has told U.S. broadcaster CBS the use of military force remains “an option”.
But Mr Maduro warned the U.S. leader he risked a repeat of the Vietnam War – in which the U.S. was involved from 1965 to 1973 – if he intervened.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers were sent to help fight communist forces in a costly and unsuccessful war which brought domestic civil unrest and international embarrassment.
“Stop. Stop. Donald Trump! You are making mistakes that are going to stain your hands with blood and you are going to leave the presidency stained with blood,” he said.
“Let’s respect each other, or is it that you are going to repeat a Vietnam in Latin America?”
Sunday saw the expiry of a deadline set by several European countries – including France, the UK, Austria, Germany and Spain – for Maduro to call early presidential elections.
They said that they would recognise Mr Guaidó as interim president if no such pledge was forthcoming.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez urged him to call elections “as quickly as possible.”
“Venezuela should be the author of its own destiny. The international community has a duty to help and ensure that this happens with the necessary guarantees”, he said.
French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian said Mr Guaidó had the “legitimacy to organise presidential elections.”
“People are on the streets, people want change,” he told broadcaster France Inter.
But Maduro responded: “We don’t accept ultimatums from anyone. It’s like if I told the EU: ‘I give you seven days to recognise the Republic of Catalonia, and if you don’t, we are going to take measures’.
“No, international politics can’t be based on ultimatums. That was the era of empires and colonies.”
Thousands took to the streets of the capital Caracas on Saturday for protests in support of both President Maduro and Mr Guaidó.
Maduro retains the support of the military, but ahead of the demonstrations Mr Guaidó received a boost when an air force general – Francisco Yanez – became the highest-ranking military official yet to pledge support for him.
Mr Guaidó says he has held private meetings with the military to win support for ousting Maduro.
He says he has also reached out to China, one of Maduro’s most important backers.
Mr Maduro has rejected letting aid into the country, telling supporters on Saturday “we’ve never been nor are we a country of beggars”.
In January, Mr Maduro was sworn in for a second term following disputed elections which many opposition leaders did not contest because they were in jail or boycotting them.
Mr Guaidó, who is head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself president on January 23.
He says the constitution allows him to assume power temporarily when the president is deemed illegitimate.
On Saturday he said protests would continue until his supporters had achieved “freedom.”