A Russian passenger plane has been flown to Venezuela amid speculation it could be there to transport 20 tonnes of gold bars out of the oil-rich country.
There have been claims that embattled president Nicolas Maduro’s administration is looking to take the nation’s depleted reserves abroad.
Opposition politician Jose Guerra, an ex-central bank director, said unnamed sources inside the monetary authority told him the jet was hired to transport the gold – about 15% of the reserves held in the capital Caracas.
“This needs to be taken with utmost seriousness,” Mr Guerra said.
“These reserves don’t belong to Calixto Ortega, they belong to Venezuela,” he added, referring to the central bank’s president, a close ally of Mr Maduro.
The Boeing 777 belonging to Russia’s Nordwind Airlines arrived on Monday night and could still be seen on the tarmac on Wednesday at Maiquetia airport outside the capital.
A Nordwind representative confirmed the jet’s arrival but wouldn’t comment on who chartered the plane, what it was carrying or its itinerary.
It is believed to be the first time the aircraft has flown to Venezuela. Flight data showed it normally flies inside Russia and to southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has restated US support for Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido in a phone call on Wednesday.
The US president spoke to Mr Guiado to reinforce his “strong support for Venezuela’s fight to regain its democracy,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
Mr Trump congratulated Mr Guaido on his “historic assumption of the presidency,” giving him a new sense of legitimacy, the White House said.
Washington has already recognised Mr Guaido, 35, as the country’s interim president and six major western European countries will follow suit this weekend, unless President Maduro calls fresh, fair elections.
On another day of turmoil in the South American nation, workers answered Mr Guaido’s call for a midday strike as part of a campaign to force Mr Maduro, 56, from power.
“Venezuela has risen up to dream of the country we want to be,” said Mr Guaido. “We must take to the street.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Maduro reinforced his closeness to the country’s armed services.
In an address broadcast live on state TV, the president asked 2,500 military personnel in the capital Caracas: “Do you love you homeland? Will you defend the constitution? Will you defend your commander in chief?”
The troops responded with loud shouts of “Yes, commander in chief!”
He accused military “mercenaries” of conspiring to divide the armed forces, seen as key to his desire to hold onto power, and plot a coup.
At least 40 people have died in clashes between protesters and security services since the anti-government protests began last week.
An estimated 850 have been imprisoned.
Millions of Venezuelans have been left in poverty since Mr Maduro took office in 2013 under a regime marked by an economic meltdown, hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods.
Around 2.3 million others have fled the country, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves.
Mr Maduro told Russia’s RIA Novosti agency he was willing to negotiate with the opposition and, in what some see as a joke, even offered to bring forward parliamentary elections.
“I am ready to sit down at the negotiating table with the opposition so that we could talk for the good of Venezuela. It would be very good to conduct parliamentary elections at an earlier stage.”