Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido arrived at Caracas' airport on Monday after flouting a court-imposed travel ban by touring Latin American countries to boost support for his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
A crowd of cheering supporters swarmed Guaido and his wife as they stepped into Maiquetia international airport's arrivals hall. He then climbed onto a car roof and gave a thumbs up to people clustered in the road outside before leaving for Caracas where several thousand supporters had gathered to welcome him.
Guaido had vowed to return to lead protests on Monday and Tuesday during the Carnival holiday period. He kept details of his trip under wraps and he arrived without prior notice, meeting ambassadors for European countries at the airport, according to witnesses.
"Back in our beloved country! Venezuela, we just passed through immigration and we will now head to where our people are," he said on Twitter just after arriving.
His return could become the next flashpoint in his duel with Maduro as he seeks to keep up momentum and spur his international backers to further isolate the socialist government. Most Western countries recognize Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate head of state.
His possible arrest could allow the opposition to highlight how the Maduro administration represses political foes, and prompt the United States to impose even harsher sanctions. But it could also strip the opposition of a public figurehead who has brought unity after years of infighting.
Guaido calls Maduro a usurper and says his presidency is illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely considered a sham. But Maduro retains control of state institutions and the apparent loyalty of senior figures in the armed forces.
"Upon my arrival, whatever path the dictator takes, we are going to continue," Guaido said earlier on Monday in a recorded voice message posted on his Twitter account.
Guaido secretly left Venezuela for Colombia, in violation of a Supreme Court order, to coordinate efforts there on Feb. 23 to send humanitarian aid into Venezuela to alleviate widespread shortages of food and medicine.
But troops blocked convoys of aid trucks sent from Colombia and Brazil, leading to clashes that killed at least six people along the Brazilian border, rights groups say.
From Colombia, he traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay to shore up Latin American support for a transition government that would precede free and fair elections.
On Sunday, he departed by plane from the Ecuadorean coastal town of Salinas but had not appeared publicly since. Venezuelan media outlets reported that he flew from Panama City to Caracas.
Maduro, who has called Guaido a coup-mongering US puppet and denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, has said his arrest depends on the justice system.
"He can't just come and go. He will have to face justice, and justice prohibited him from leaving the country," he told ABC News last week.
Protesters in Caracas, many wearing white and carrying Venezuelan flags, said Guaido's arrest would spark new demonstrations. "If the regime has even a little bit of conscience, they should not arrest Guaido because people truly would not put up with it," said Franklin Lopez, a 60-year-old administrator.
The United States has warned Maduro of the consequences of arresting Guaido and the US Treasury imposed new sanctions on Friday targeting Venezuelan military officials.
After the military blocked the aid convoys, Guaido proposed that "all options be kept open" to topple Maduro, but foreign military intervention is seen as unlikely and his international backers are instead using a mix of sanctions and diplomacy.
"Any threats or acts against his safe return will be met with a strong and significant response from the United States and the international community," US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Twitter on Sunday.
The government has jailed dozens of opposition leaders and activists for seeking to overthrow Maduro through violent street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017, including Guaido's mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.
Turning away from previous hopes of a swift end to Maduro's government, Guaido said on Sunday it would be a "long and difficult process."
He has offered future amnesties to state officials and solders who recognize Guaido, though the military has largely remained loyal to Maduro despite Colombia's migration agency reporting several hundred desertions since Feb 23.