Thousands support Venezuela's Guaido at Madrid rally

MADRID (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido joined thousands of supporters at a demonstration in Madrid on Saturday after arriving in Spain on the last leg of a European tour.

Speaking in a central square packed with supporters holding signs calling for ‘democracy’, Guaido emphasized the importance of international support in unseating Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from power.

“We need the support of the world to fight against the groups operating in Venezuela. We have the opportunity to get Venezuela back because we are together. We can heal Venezuela,” he told a crowd of people waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “Yes we can”.

“It is the struggle of a whole country in favor of democracy,” he said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez did not meet Guaido, a decision that angered right-wing opposition parties but was welcomed by Unidas Podemos, the far-left coalition partners of Sanchez’s Socialists. Podemos members have voiced support for Venezuela’s leftist ruling party in the past.

Instead, Guaido met Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya as well as Madrid’s mayor and regional president, both from the conservative People’s Party (PP).

Guaido’s visit coincided with a political spat in Spain over reports that Transport Minister Jose Luis Abalos secretly met a senior Maduro aide who is subject to a European Union travel ban at Madrid’s Barajas airport on Monday.

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PP leader Pablo Casado criticized Sanchez for not meeting Guaido and called on him to dismiss Abalos.

Sanchez told reporters earlier in the day that Spain’s government wanted elections in Venezuela “as soon as possible” but criticized Spanish opposition parties for using the crisis in Venezuela “against the government”.

He also voice his backing for Abalos, saying “he put all his efforts into avoiding a diplomatic crisis and succeeded”.

Guaido has defied a travel ban to seek support in Europe, where he has spoken at the European Parliament, attended the World Economic Forum in Davos and met with leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson.

Reporting by Marco Trujillo, Elena Rodriguez and Jessica Jones; Editing by Hugh Lawson