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Thursday October 3, 2013 MYT 12:25:02 AM
Thursday October 3, 2013 MYT 12:25:54 AM
by andrew cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Washington has expelled Venezuela's highest-ranking diplomat in the United States and two others from its embassy in retaliation for Venezuela's booting out three American diplomats accused of fomenting sabotage, the Venezuelan government said.
The flare-up appears to derail some tentative moves to improve relations between Caracas and Washington since President Nicolas Maduro took over this year from the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, whose 14-year rule was halted by cancer.
"We repudiate this expulsion," Maduro's government said in a statement, confirming that its acting head of mission, Calixto Ortega, and two others had been ordered out.
"This cannot be considered a reciprocal decision, if you look at the clear conduct of our officials, who have at no time dared to meet groups opposed to President Barack Obama's government, or people interested in acting against it."
Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats this week on charges they were involved in promoting anti-government plots and sabotage in the OPEC nation, whose people are bitterly divided between "Chavistas" and the opposition.
The expelled Americans include Kelly Keiderling, who was in charge of the mission in Caracas, where the United States has been without an ambassador since Chavez kicked out the last one in 2008.
The U.S. government, and Keiderling herself in a news conference in Caracas, denied the allegations, saying they were conducting normal diplomatic activities, including meeting a wide cross-section of Venezuelan society.
Venezuelan state TV has been broadcasting video, set to menacing-sounding music, of a trip the three Americans made to Bolivar state, in the southeast of the country. It showed them holding meetings there, including with a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, Sumate.
"Of course we met politicians ... just like Venezuelan diplomats in Washington. If they were not going out freely, they would not be doing their job," Keiderling told reporters late on Tuesday before the three headed out on Wednesday.
"All the accusations of sabotage and conspiracy are false."
Critics say Maduro is continuing a Chavez-era tactic of inventing and inflating diplomatic crises to distract attention from economic and social problems affecting the South American country's 29 million people.
But government supporters point to a history of U.S. opposition to socialism in Venezuela, including Washington's endorsement of a brief coup against Chavez in 2002.
Since winning the election in April, Maduro, 50, has swung between vociferous denunciations of U.S. "imperialism" and appeals for better relations.
Despite their frayed political relations, the United States remains Venezuela's main oil export market, receiving an average of around 800,000 barrels per day of crude and refined products each month this year, according to U.S. government data.
That puts it behind only Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico on the list of the United States' most important suppliers of oil.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Vicki Allen)
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