CARACAS - President Nicolas Maduro's government on Monday gave three U.S. Embassy officials 48 hours to leave the country, accusing the Obama administration of siding with student protesters that Venezuela accuses of inciting violence.
The announcement by Foreign Minister Elias Jaua came amid fears that renewed clashes could erupt Tuesday when both pro- and anti-government activists hold demonstrations in the capital.
Jaua said the senior U.S. consular officers were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, the hotbed of the recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach. Repeating charges by Maduro, who has expelled American diplomats twice before, Jaua said the U.S. is conspiring with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and student activists in an attempt to oust the socialist president.
The U.S. denied the charges, and is expressing concern about rising violence that led to three deaths last week during anti-government demonstrations and about the government's attempts to block peaceful protests.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that Lopez's arrest would have a "chilling effect" on Venezuelans' right to free expression.
More than 1,000 students, who have spent the past week on the streets alternating between peaceful protests by day and battles with police at night, marched on Monday to Venezuela's telecommunications regulator to demand it lift all restrictions on the news media's coverage of the unfolding political crisis. There were no reports of new disturbances.
Several journalists have been harassed and detained. Colombia's news channel NTN24 was taken off cable television while covering protests Wednesday that ended in a battle between student demonstrators and security forces backed by armed pro-government militias.
Three people were killed during those clashes last week - two students and a pro-government demonstrator. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate at least one of the students was killed when pro-government militia members fired directly at protesters.
Maduro accuses Lopez of being behind the violence and of leading a "fascist" plot to overthrow him two months after his party's candidates won mayoral elections by a landslide. At a rally with thousands of supporters Saturday, Maduro dared Lopez, a Harvard-educated former mayor, to turn himself in after a court ordered his arrest on charges ranging from homicide to vandalism of public property.
Lopez said he doesn't fear going to jail to defend his beliefs. In a video message Sunday, he called on supporters to march with him in white shirts Tuesday to the Interior Ministry, where he'll deliver a petition demanding the government protect citizens' rights to peacefully protest.
"I haven't committed any crime," said Lopez, who hasn't been seen in public since a Wednesday night news conference after the bloodshed. "If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution."
To avoid another violent clash, Lopez aides have rerouted their Tuesday protest away from the central plaza in Caracas where a competing march of pro-government oil workers will take place.
Maduro called for the Tuesday march by supporters in a televised address Sunday in which he accused the U.S. of trying to stir up unrest to regain dominance of South America's largest oil producer.
As evidence to support those claims, Jaua on Monday presented what he said was a series of emails from embassy officials from 2009-11 soliciting funding from Washington to support student groups in Venezuela. He said more recent communications also exist, but are under wraps during an investigation.
The three expelled officials - Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark - all enjoyed the rank of second secretary, and two of them were vice consuls, Jaua said.
In Washington, the State Department said it hadn't received any formal notification of the expulsions. It said reports that the U.S. is helping organize protests are "baseless and false" and called on the Venezuelan government to engage the opposition in "meaningful dialogue."