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By Reuters

BERLIN — European leaders threw their support behind Venezuela's opposition leader on Saturday ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting about the country's political turmoil.

The governments of Germany, Spain and France all stated they would recognize Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday, as head of state if elections are not called in the coming week.

"Unless elections are announced within eight days, we will be ready to recognize @jguaido as 'President in charge' of Venezuela in order to trigger a political process," French President Emmanuel Macron said on his Twitter feed.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Germany's government spokeswoman Martina Fietz shared similar statements on Saturday.

The United States said on Friday it was ready to step up economic measures to drive current President Nicolas Maduro from power, and most Latin American nations have joined Washington in supporting Guaido's claim on the presidency.

Europe, however, had until now simply called for new elections in the troubled South American country.

Saturday's U.N. Security Council meeting is being held at Washington's request.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to address the meeting along with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and the other council members, which include supporters of both dueling presidents.

Amid the tension, the U.S. on Friday named Elliot Abrams, a hawkish former Republican official, to handle American policy toward Venezuela.

A neoconservative who has long advocated an activist U.S. role in the world, Abrams was assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration and was convicted in 1991 on two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

The session focusing on Venezuela's crisis comes a day after Guaido vowed to remain on the streets until his country has a transitional government, while Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup.

"They can cut a flower, but they will never keep spring from coming," Guaido told supporters Friday, alluding to a similar phrase from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

In rival press conferences, Guaido urged his followers to stage another mass protest next week, while Maduro pushed his call for dialogue. Each man appeared ready to defend his claim to the presidency no matter the cost, with Guaido telling supporters that if he is arrested they should "stay the course" and peacefully protest.

But the standoff could set the scene for more violence and has plunged troubled Venezuela into a new chapter of political turmoil that rights groups say has already left more than two dozen dead as thousands take to the street demanding Maduro step down.

Guaido's move is the most direct challenge to Maduro's rule despite years of protests at home and international efforts to isolate the regime amid a growing humanitarian crisis fueled by falling oil prices and government mismanagement.

President Donald Trump's administration announced it was recognizing the 35-year-old leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly on Wednesday, leading Maduro to say that he was breaking all diplomatic ties with the United States.

U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats are finding themselves caught in the crosshairs. On Wednesday, Maduro gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country — an order Washington said it would defy by keeping the embassy open, though it told non-essential staff to leave.

On Friday morning, a caravan of black SUVs escorted a contingent of U.S. embassy workers and their families to the Caracas airport. They were later seen checking into an American Airlines flight.

Maduro, meanwhile, has recalled all Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S. and ordered the nation's embassy and consulates there closed. Guaido, seeking to sidestep Maduro, has urged all American and Venezuelan staff to stay in their posts.

Maduro has not shown any hint he's ready to cede power. He called Guaido on Friday "an agent for the gringos in Venezuela," using a sometimes derogatory term for Americans. But he also said that he would be willing to talk with Trump and the opposition.

"I'm not anti-American," he said. "I'm anti-imperialist."

Associated Press contributed.