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Venezuela leader expels US officials amid protests

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- 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 who 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 have announced plans for demonstrations in the capital.

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said that 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 that the U.S. is conspiring with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and student activists in an attempt to oust the socialist president.

The U.S. has denied the charges but 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 were harassed and detained, and 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 - two students and a pro-government demonstrator. News videos and photographs taken at the time indicate that at least one of the students was killed when militias fired directly at protesters.

Maduro accuses Lopez of being behind the violence and the head of a "fascist" plot to overthrow him two months after his party's candidates won mayoral elections by a landslide. In a rally with thousands of supporters Saturday Maduro dared Lopez, a Harvard-trained former mayor, to turn himself in after a court ordered his arrest on charges ranging from vandalism of public property to homicide.

Lopez said that 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 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 on Monday rerouted their upcoming protest away from the central plaza in Caracas where a competing march of pro-government oil workers will talk place.

Maduro called for the Tuesday march in a televised address Sunday in which he blasted the U.S. for trying to stir 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 e-mails from embassy officials from 2009-2011 soliciting funding from Washington to support student groups in Venezuela. He said more recent communications also exist, but are under wraps during an ongoing 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 to organize protests are "baseless and false" and called on the Venezuelan government to engage the opposition in "meaningful dialogue."

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lwa100 February 18 2014 at 3:38 AM

Is this the country we "loaned" millions to develop their oil off shore?

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1 reply
Richard lwa100 February 18 2014 at 5:01 AM

No, "we" did not make any such loans. However, American oil companies did invest their own capital to develop Venzuela offshore oil fields; then the Venzuela government nationalized the US facilities, paying them 10-20% of their investment.

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lgvxl42 February 17 2014 at 11:27 PM

An unfortunate fact is that this form of socialism is permeating most of Latin America. Nicaragua, Bolivia, & Argentina all have socialist presidents. As we speak, El Salvador is fighting for its very existence. The person running against democracy there is an avowed Marxist. This is the plight of Latin America. It should be our plight, as well. We are all of the America's. Unfortunately, too many turn a blind eye. It is time to stand for El Salvador.

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1 reply
rmi016 lgvxl42 February 17 2014 at 11:31 PM

And for the USA!

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1 reply
lgvxl42 rmi016 February 17 2014 at 11:47 PM

& I agree with you completely! This is my home while El Salvador is my wife's native land. I have no use for liberalism, nor has she.

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nancy February 18 2014 at 8:35 AM

This began in 1998 with Chavez, Sean Penn's buddy. This article low balled the amount of demonstrators. If you go to youtube, you can see. This article also failed to mention that Cuba has sent their military.

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ladkraemer February 17 2014 at 7:57 PM

Resistance to government is good and governments should cherish it... it keeps government and leaders on there toes. Populace complacency creates governments like Venezuela. Change the leaders like you change your underwear, eventually they start to stink. Like Russia, their underwear is really starting to stink and I think everyone knows whom I mean.

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markiesplatter86 February 17 2014 at 6:50 PM

Look at this Guy. The Great medicine Man for Uncle.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
markiesplatter86 February 17 2014 at 6:48 PM

Don't they like like Taliban.

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NicktheMan February 17 2014 at 11:14 PM

Why is it always OUR fault when these countries have internal crisis? We should expel the Venezuelans because of the harsh winter we are enduring. Come on. Get real. The students are protesting because they want a freer society like they used to have before Hugo Chavez. Maduro sounds like a spineless, whining baby trying to blame outsiders for his own shortcomings.

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amosesjr February 18 2014 at 8:36 AM

OK........bring our officials home........along with our foreign aid, oil purchases and whatever else we do that benefits them. Fair trade in my opinion.

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jonclong February 17 2014 at 10:01 PM

So, how can Obama justify the millions in aid paid (and still being paid) to these jerks? At a minimum, our response should be to cut off monetary aid to this opressive government and curtail trade relations!

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1 reply
Roberta jonclong February 17 2014 at 10:26 PM

How much aid?

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steblawar February 17 2014 at 8:02 PM

Hmm, sounds like they claim they've been "snooping" on our embassy e-mails. Heck, I thought we were the only ones who tried to snoop on other governments. Hey, why would anyone in Venezuala protest their wonderful government? Just because their economy is resembling the Titanic and they have the highest crime rate in the western hemisphere (trailing only Afghanistan in the world, per "crime index" rank) couldn't possibly be a reason for discontent ... could it?

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