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The United States has expelled Venezuela's chargé d'affaires and two other diplomats in Washington in reprisal for the expulsion of three American diplomats from Caracas, both countries said late Tuesday.
The tit-for-tat move comes a day after the expulsion of the Americans, accused of plotting acts of sabotage against the government, the Foreign Ministry in Caracas said.
The Ministry called the American move unjustified, saying the Venezuelan diplomats had not been meeting with people opposed to President Barack Obama.
In Washington, a State Department official confirmed the Venezuelan chargé d'affaires Calixto Ortega Rios and the other two had been advised Monday they had 48 hours to leave the United States.
"It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action," the official said.
"It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries and not a serious way for a country to conduct its foreign policy," the official.
Venezuela has accused Ambassador Kelly Keiderling and two others of meeting with the Venezuelan far right -- the government's term for the opposition -- to finance President Nicolas Maduro's opponents and "encourage actions to sabotage the power system and the economy.
The two countries -- at each other's throats politically but eager supplier and buyer of Venezuelan oil -- have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the allegations were related to the U.S. Embassy workers' travel to Venezuelan state of Bolivar, home to troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela's main hydroelectric plant.
"They were there conducting normal diplomatic engagement, as we've said in the past and should come as no surprise," Psaki said.
Venezuela's economy is struggling ahead of the Dec. 8 elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.
The oil-rich OPEC member country has been plagued by worsening power outages since 2010. The opposition blames neglect and poor maintenance, while alleging mismanagement and corruption at struggling state-owned aluminum, iron and bauxite foundries in Bolivar.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, blamed sabotage by the "extreme right" for both the blackouts and food shortages, but has provided no evidence. Like his predecessor, Maduro has a history of making unsubstantiated accusations against the U.S. and his political opponents.
In a news conference in Caracas, Keiderling said she and the other diplomats would leave Venezuela on Wednesday before the 48-hour deadline expired. "The work of the embassy will continue. It doesn't matter very much if it is one person or another" doing it, she said.
She said that if the accusation against them was that they had met with Venezuelans then "it is true. We met with Venezuelans."
"These meetings with civil society can be with (the independent election monitoring group) Sumate, they can be with a group of women, with mothers who have lost children or with an environmental group that wants to lobby for cleaning a park," she said. "If we aren't talking with these people, we aren't doing our jobs."
U.S. officials said they may take reciprocal action in accordance with the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations and on consular relations.
"While the government of the United States does not understand that it has to respect our country's sovereignty there will be simply be no cordial relations nor cordial communication," Maduro said, speaking from the governmental palace on Tuesday.
"The day that the government of President (Barack) Obama rectifies the situation we will establish new points of contact to discuss common issues," said Maduro.
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