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China offers to help Venezuela restore power after vast blackout
[CARACAS] China on Wednesday offered to help Venezuela bring its collapsing power grid back online as President Nicolas Maduro sought to stave off rising public anger that is bolstering his US-backed rival Juan Guaido.
A vast blackout that struck Venezuela nearly a week ago - the worst in its history - has deepened the South American country's already grave economic crisis, especially by disrupting the supply of drinking water.
Although electricity has since been restored to most of the capital Caracas, water was having to be trucked in, and western swaths of the country remain without power.
"No water, no power, no medicine, no cash, no transport. This has been dreadful," one Caracas resident, Victoria Milano, 40, told AFP.
Mr Guaido, an opposition leader whose claim to be Venezuela's interim president is backed by the US and 50 other countries, told supporters on Tuesday he expected to have military chiefs on his side and take over the presidential palace "very soon."
"This desperation and darkness is caused by the dictatorship," Mr Guaido said, alleging that around 20 people had died in hospital because of the power cut.
Venezuela's pro-Maduro prosecutor's office has hit back with a criminal investigation against Mr Guaido for "sabotage," alleging he had a hand in the blackout. But the opposition leader remains free after the US warned of "consequences" if he were arrested.
Mr Maduro has accused Washington of waging "cybernetic" and "electromagnetic" attacks against Venezuela's Guri hydroelectric plant, which provides power to 80 perc ent of the country's 30 million inhabitants.
As he declared "victory" on television late Tuesday, claiming power had been restored "in almost all" the nation, Caracas residents in formerly middle-class neighborhoods banged pots in the street in protest.
Experts said an attack by a foreign state actor on Venezuela's grid was possible, but unlikely.
"Knowing Venezuela, it was likely an internal failure," Jeff Middleton, the chief technology officer at The Vault Foundation, a company that secures crypto currency transactions, told AFP.
Venezuela's infrastructure has degraded over years because of lack of investment, a significant brain drain, and the government's practice of putting the military in charge of key civilian facilities and companies. That has impacted not only the electricity grid but also the country's vital oil industry.
The situation has worsened with successive rounds of US sanctions against Mr Maduro's regime, including steps that have severely curbed its oil exports.
While much of Latin America and Europe have thrown their weight behind Mr Guaido with a view to forcing presidential elections in Venezuela, Mr Maduro has the support of Russia and China, major creditors and buyers of Venezuelan oil.
China on Wednesday said it stood ready to help Venezuela get its electricity up and running again.
"China hopes that Venezuela can quickly find the cause of this accident and restore normal power and social order," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing in Beijing.
"China is willing to offer assistance and technical support to Venezuela to restore the power system,"Mr Lu said.
The spokesman said China was "very concerned" about reports of a cyber attack, but declined to directly blame the United States.
Spain, one of the EU countries strongly backing Guaido, also offered help to fix Venezuela's "badly deteriorated" electricity system.
According to Ecoanalitica, an economic analysis firm, the blackout had by Tuesday cost Venezuela US$875 million.
"There is major paralysis in many critical areas in the oil sector," it said, estimating that up to 70 per cent of the one million barrels of oil a day Venezuela still managed to produce could end up being affected.