By Jose Elías Rodríguez and David Ljunggren
MADRID/OTTAWA (Reuters) - Major European nations joined the United States on Monday in recognising opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate head of state, while a separate regional bloc meeting kept up the pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
The coordinated recognition by a flood of European Union nations including Britain, Germany, France and Spain followed the expiration of an ultimatum for Maduro to call a new presidential election, aligning them with Washington and against Russia and China.
The 14-nation so-called Lima Group, which includes Canada and Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico but not the United States, met in Ottawa to discuss the way forward on Venezuela. Although Washington has broached the idea of an oil embargo on Venezuela, the Lima Group looked set to hold off imposing more sanctions, sources briefed on the matter said.
"From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony," Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said as he announced Madrid had recognised Guaido, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly who declared himself last month to be the oil-rich South American country's interim ruler.
Maduro's government, overseeing an economic collapse that has prompted 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country, lashed out at the EU nations, saying their move would affect relations with Caracas. In a statement, it accused them of submitting to a U.S. "strategy to overthrow the legitimate government" and singled out Spain for acting "cowardly."
Among other EU nations recognising Guaido were: Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Poland, Portugal and Sweden. The United States welcomed the EU nations' recognition of Guaido and encouraged other countries to follow suit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
Italy, however, blocked a joint EU position to recognise Guaido as interim president, diplomatic sources said, with the government in Rome deeply divided over the issue. Norway, not an EU member, said it also was not recognising him.
In power since former President Hugo Chavez's death in 2013, Maduro has been accused by critics of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship.
The 35-year-old Guaido, accused by Maduro's government of staging a U.S.-directed coup, has galvanized Venezuela's opposition with a hopeful message. Guaido repeatedly has called on Venezuela's military, which has remained loyal to Maduro, to support a transition to democracy.
"Soldiers, we continue to wait for you. The moment is now," Guaido said in a speech on Monday in Caracas, urging the military to allow humanitarian aid to reach people.
Maduro is facing calls from a growing chorus of nations, including some of Venezuela's neighbours, to resign in the wake of last year's disputed presidential vote in which he won re-election. Critics have called that election a sham and the mainstream opposition boycotted it.
He has defied European heads of state, calling them sycophants for following U.S. President Donald Trump.
Maduro sent a letter to Pope Francis requesting a renewal of dialogue in the crisis, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in Abu Dhabi.
Most Lima Group members have said Maduro should quit in favour of Guaido and have called for a new election. The challenge for the Lima Group is that Mexico opposes measures to oust Maduro. The United States wants Maduro gone, as do other key Western nations.
"I think we are at a very critical point in the history of Venezuela," said Alan Duncan, Britain's junior foreign minister, among a number of European representatives attending the Lima Group meeting.
"We must all stick together and speak as one until such time as the former President Maduro has stood down and allowed fresh, properly conducted free and fair democratic elections to take place," Duncan added.
Last month, the Lima Group announced a travel ban on senior Venezuelan officials and a freeze on their foreign assets.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would formally recognise Guaido's chosen envoy as Venezuela's legitimate representative in Canada in a move his government called symbolic.
In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said U.N. officials will not participate in international initiatives on Venezuela in order to remain neutral.
Maduro's critics have said incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation, leaving it with widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation forecast to reach 10 million percent in 2019.
Guaido accused Maduro's government of trying to move up to $1.2 billion from the state development bank Bandes to a financial entity in Uruguay, but did not present evidence. Guaido urged Uruguay to prevent the move. Uruguay's central bank and the office of the country's president did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Maduro blames Washington and other Western nations for sabotaging Venezuela's economy, including through sanctions. The United States last week imposed sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA. Trump, in an interview that aired on Sunday, said military intervention in Venezuela was "an option."
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Philip Pullella in Abu Dhabi and Steve Scherer in Rome, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Lesley Wroughton in Washington, Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick in Caracas and Malena Castaldi in Montevideo; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Will Dunham)