Venezuela gives U.S. officials 48 hours to exit

by joshua goodman The Associated Press - Published: February 18, 2014 | 4:50 am 0

CARACAS, Venezuela - President Nicolas Maduro's government 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 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 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."

The State Department said it hadn't received any formal notification of the expulsions.

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