Venezuela expels US diplomats, accusing them of economic sabotage
Caracas announces diplomats have 48 hours to leave, after accusing them of fostering opposition efforts to destabilise the country
President Nicolas Maduro has expelled the top US diplomat and two other embassy officials from the country, accusing them of supporting plots to sabotage the nation's electrical grid and the economy.
"Get out of Venezuela! Yankee go home!" Maduro shouted as he announced the expulsions at a military event to commemorate the bicentennial of a battle in Venezuela's war of independence.
He said the officials had 48 hours to leave.
"We have detected a group of officials of the United States embassy in Caracas, in Venezuela, and we have been tracking them for several months," Maduro announced during a live television broadcast.
"These officials spend their time meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right wing, financing them and encouraging them to take actions to sabotage the electrical system, to sabotage the Venezuelan economy."
The expulsions were the latest diplomatic swipe at Washington by Maduro since he took over for the country's long-time president, Hugo Chavez, who died in March.
Late last year, as Chavez grew increasingly ill, the two nations held informal talks aimed at improving the long-strained relations, and there was some optimism on the US side that Maduro, a former foreign minister sometimes described as pragmatic, would be amenable to a thaw.
But it quickly became clear that Maduro intended to stick closely to Chavez's example, painting the Americans as an imperialist aggressor out to undermine his government.
Early on, he accused the Obama administration of plotting against him, and hours before he announced the death of Chavez on March 5, he kicked out two US military attachés, saying they had tried to recruit Venezuelan military personnel to conspire against the government.
The diplomats expelled on Monday included Kelly Keiderling, the chargé d'affaires, who runs the embassy in the absence of an ambassador.
The US has not had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010, when Chavez refused to accept the new one proposed by Washington because of remarks Chavez said were disrespectful.
Chavez had expelled the US ambassador, Patrick Duddy, in 2008, saying his government had discovered a US-supported plot by military officers to topple him. Duddy was later allowed to return to Caracas.
Another of the diplomats expelled on Monday was Elizabeth Hoffman, an official in the embassy's political section, whom Maduro had publicly accused at least as early as April of meeting with opposition figures to plot sabotage of the electrical system. He said at the time that he had proof but took no action. The third official being expelled is David Moo, the vice-consul.
Foreign minister Elmas Jaua later said on television that the evidence against the US diplomats included meetings held in recent weeks with democracy advocates, union members and elected officials belonging to the political opposition, whom he accused of planning to destabilise the country.
"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of US government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilise the Venezuelan government," the US embassy said in a statement.
It called the meetings held by the officials "normal diplomatic engagements", adding: "We maintain regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum."
Ever since he was elected by a narrow margin in April in a special election to replace Chavez, Maduro has struggled with intense economic woes and a deeply divided people.
He has often accused plotters and saboteurs of being responsible for a variety of the nation's ills, including electrical blackouts and a deadly explosion at the national oil company's enormous refinery.