Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro expels three US officials amid protest tensions

Leader accuses officials of trying to infiltrate universities to inflame unrest

The Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has ordered the expulsion of three US Embassy officials after Washington came to the defence of an opposition hard-liner accused by the leader of responsibility for bloodshed during anti-government protests.

Maduro didn't identify the consular officials but charged that intelligence officials who tailed them the past two months found evidence they were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, a hotbed of recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua is scheduled to provide more details today.

Triggering the expulsion was the Obama administration's siding with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is being hunted by police as Maduro accuses him of leading a “fascist” plot to oust the socialist government two months after it won mayoral elections by a landslide.

Maduro said State Department official Alex Lee, in a phone conversation with Venezuela's ambassador to the Washington-based Organization of American States, warned that arresting the 42-year-old former mayor would bring serious negative consequences with international ramifications.

“These are unacceptable, insolent demands,” Maduro said during a televised address on Sunday night. “I don't take orders from anyone in the world.”

There was no immediate reaction from the US government, which has denied the accusations that it is plotting with the opposition against him. The US hasn't had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010.

The Harvard-educated Lopez has been at the center of rising tensions in Venezuela since he led the biggest demonstration yet against Maduro's 10-month-old government, mobilizing more than 10,000 people on Wednesday to peacefully protest hardships ranging from rampant crime to 56 percent inflation.

The government blamed him for the mayhem that erupted after the rally ended and a group of students battled with security forces and armed pro-government militias, leaving three dead. Most of the demonstrators had gone home before the violence broke out.

In his TV speech, Maduro called for a march by oil workers on Tuesday beginning at the same central plaza in Caracas where Lopez said he would rally with supporters dressed in white the same day, setting up the potential for clashes between the opposing forces. National Guard troops clash with anti-government students protesting in Caracas National Guard troops clash with anti-government students protesting in Caracas

Lopez announced his plans a few hours before Maduro's speech, appearing in a video shot at an undisclosed location. He said he didn't fear arrest but accused authorities of trying to violate his constitutional right to protest Maduro's government.

He said that after Tuesday's march to the Interior Ministry he planned to walk the final steps alone to the agency to deliver a petition demanding a full investigation of the government's role in the deaths. He said he was prepared to turn himself over to officials then and answer to an arrest order on charges ranging from terrorism and homicide to vandalism of public property.

“I haven't committed any crime,” said Lopez, who hasn't been seen in public since a news conference Wednesday night after the bloodshed. “If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution.”

Maduro on Sunday urged Lopez for his own safety to avoid a media “show” and accept an offer to negotiate his surrender. He claimed that some sectors of the extreme right-wing want to assassinate Lopez to provoke a political crisis.

Lopez's comments came after security forces raided his home and that of his parents over the weekend, seeking to serve the arrest order. Lopez wasn't at either residence when the officials arrived around midnight to the sound of banging pots and pans by neighbors protesting what they consider an arbitrary detention order. Leopoldo Lopez hasn't been seen in public since a news conference on Wednesday night after the bloodshed

The raids capped another night of protests during which security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of about 500 students who vowed to remain on the streets until all arrested anti-government demonstrators are released.

More protests took place Sunday, and authorities said 18 people were injured.

Lopez is the most prominent of a group of opposition hard-liners who are challenging two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of the anti-government movement.

Maduro considers him a puppet of US ambitions to regain dominance over South America's largest oil-producing economy.

Sunday's expulsion of US diplomats was the third by Maduro.

In March, hours before announcing the death of Hugo Chavez, he expelled two US diplomats while suggesting the United States might have been behind the leader's cancer. Then in a fiery speech last September, he ordered the most senior US official in Venezuela and two others to leave, for allegedly helping opponents sabotage the electrical grid. In each case the US retaliated in kind.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday expressed concern over the violence surrounding Venezuela's protests, the detention of dozens of demonstrators and the arrest order for Lopez.

“These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully.” Kerry said in a statement.

AP

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea