BEDMINSTER, N.J. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday threatened military intervention in Venezuela, a surprise escalation in Washington's response to Venezuela's political crisis.
"The people are suffering and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary," Trump told reporters.
More than 120 people have been killed in Venezuela and thousands arrested in over four months of unrest. The government in Caracas did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump's threat.
Venezuelan authorities have long said U.S. officials were planning an invasion. A former military general told Reuters earlier this year that some anti-aircraft missiles had been placed along the country's coast for precisely that eventuality.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the U.S. military was ready to support efforts to protect U.S. citizens and America's national interests, but that insinuations by Caracas of a planned U.S. invasion were "baseless."
Trump's suggestion of possible military action came in a week when he has repeatedly threatened a military response if North Korea threatens the United States or its allies.
Asked if U.S. forces would lead an operation in Venezuela, Trump declined to provide details. "We don't talk about it but a military operation - a military option - is certainly something that we could pursue," he said.
The president's comments conjured up memories of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America during the 20th century, when the United States regarded its "backyard" neighbors to the south as underlings who it could easily intimidate through conspicuous displays of military power.
The U.S. military has not directly intervened in the region since a 1994-1995 operation that aimed to remove from Haiti a military government installed after a 1991 coup.
Trump's comments could be an asset to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro by boosting his credibility as a national defender.
"Maduro must be thrilled right now," said Mark Feierstein, who was a senior aide on Venezuela matters to former U.S. president Barack Obama. "It's hard to imagine a more damaging thing for Trump to say."
The United States sanctioned Maduro and other Venezuelan officials in July after Maduro established a constituent assembly run by his Socialist Party loyalists and cracked down on opposition figures. The assembly's election drew international condemnation and critics have said it removed any remaining checks on Maduro's power.
Washington has not placed sanctions on the OPEC member's oil industry, which supplies America with about 740,000 barrels per day of oil.
Venezuela possesses a stockpile of 5,000 Russian-made MANPADS surface-to-air weapons, according to military documents reviewed by Reuters. It has the largest known cache of the weapons in Latin America, posing a concern for U.S. officials during the country's mounting turmoil.
The United Nations Security Council was briefed behind closed doors on Venezuela in May at the request of the United States. At the time, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington was just trying to raise awareness of the situation and was not seeking any action by the 15-member Security Council.