A Venezuelan air force general has defected from the administration of President Nicolas Maduro and called on his compatriots to participate in protests against the socialist leader’s rule.

Francisco Yanez is the first high ranking officer to leave Maduro’s government since Jan. 23, when National Assembly President Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s legitimate leader.

In a YouTube video, Gen. Francisco Yanez said: “The transition to democracy is imminent.”

He described Maduro as a dictator and referred to Guaido as his president. Yanez is refusing to say whether he is still in Venezuela or has left the country.

The Associated Press reached him on a Colombian cell phone number. In the video, Yanez claimed that “90 per cent” of the country’s armed forces are against Maduro.

Yanez is described by a military web page as the head of strategic planning for Venezuela’s air force.

President Nicolas Maduro started a second term on January 10 even though his election was not recognised by many foreign governments.

Protesters flowed into the streets of Caracas Saturday, with flags and placards, many to support opposition leader Juan Guaido’s calls for democratic elections and others to back embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

Carrying Venezuelan flags and blowing horns and whistles, Guaido’s supporters planned to converge on the European Union headquarters in eastern Caracas from five staging areas around the city.

The EU and major European powers have given Maduro until Sunday to call “free elections” or they will recognise Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the crisis-torn country’s acting president.

Underscoring the high stakes, a Venezuelan air force general announced Saturday he rejected Maduro’s “dictatorial” authority and pledged his allegiance to Guaido, in a video posted on social media.

The pro-Maduro forces were rallying in the western side of the city to mark the 20th anniversary of the rise of power of the late Hugo Chavez, the leftist firebrand who installed a socialist government.

The ruling Socialist party celebrates the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s late predecessor, on Saturday.

The “clear goal” of the march is “to accompany the ultimatum given by members of the European Union,” Guaido said ahead of the march.

Guaido moved to expand his international support base by assuring Venezuela’s main creditor China — a long-time ally of Venezuela’s socialist regimen — that he would honour bilateral agreements if successful in ousting Maduro.

Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, is facing the most serious challenge to his legitimacy yet, with the United States, Canada and nearly a dozen Latin American countries piling on pressure for his removal from office.

Hundreds of members of a civilian militia, public workers and people who have benefited from the government’s social programs began to concentrate in the downtown Avenida Bolivar in a show of support for their beleaguered leader.

Although the rally was called by Maduro, it was not known if he would attend. If he does, it would be the first time he has appeared in public since August 4, when he claimed to have been the target of an exploding drone at a military parade in Caracas.

Clashes last week around the country left some 40 people dead, according to the United Nations.

Chavez, the army officer whose oil-fuelled spending raised millions of Venezuelans out of poverty, assumed office as Venezuela’s president February 2, 1999 at the head of a socialist movement.

His hand-picked successor, Maduro, has presided over the oil-rich country’s economic collapse and is widely denounced as a dictator for ruthlessly cracking down on dissent amid chronic shortages of food and medicines.

Guaido, 35, is trying to force the socialist leader from power so he can set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections.

On Saturday he announced a new street demonstration for February 12 to keep up the pressure on Maduro.

Speaking to thousands of opposition supporters during the mass protest, Guaido urged demonstrators to “stay in the streets,” announcing two new demonstrations: one for Youth Day on February 10 and another at an unspecified time related to the entry of humanitarian aid that he earlier said would arrive from Colombia and Brazil.

Guaido said humanitarian assistance will begin flowing into the crisis-wracked country within the next few days, despite the objections of President Maduro.

The United States and a dozen Latin American countries rapidly recognised Guaido after he declared himself acting president in a January 23 speech, posing a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority.

On Saturday afternoon Maduro appeared to cave in to protesters and told supporters in a speech that he would propose holding congressional elections early.

The UN says 2.3 million people have fled the country, unleashing a migration crisis in South America.