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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro announced Monday the expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and two other embassy officials, alleging they conspired with "the extreme right" to sabotage the economy and power grid.

 

The U.S. Embassy rejected as unfounded the Venezuelan government's accusations of "a great psychological operation" against it.

 

Maduro made the announcement during a live TV appearance and said Charge d'Affairs Kelly Keiderling and the two others had 48 hours to leave the country.

 

"Out of Venezuela," the leftist leader shouted, then added in English: "Yankees go home!"

 

Maduro said a group of embassy officials that his government had been following for months was "dedicated to meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right, to financing it and feeding its actions to sabotage the electrical system and the Venezuela economy."

 

"I have proof here in my hands," he said, though he did not offer any details on the diplomats' alleged transgressions.

 

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua later said on state TV that a protest note had been sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with proof of "a great psychological operation" by the American diplomats to "destabilize" Venezuela.

 

He said the expelled Americans had met with opposition and labor leaders in the southeastern state of Bolivar and with the opposition governor of Amazonas state, Liborio Guarulla. Bolivar is home to troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela's main hydroelectric plant, while bordering Amazonas is one of just three opposition-governed states.

 

Expelled with Keiderling, the top embassy official in the absence of an ambassador, were consular officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who works in the embassy's political section.

 

State TV showed photographs and video of the three in Bolivar and Amazonas, including visiting offices of Sumate, an electoral-monitoring group that helped organize a failed 2004 recall vote against Maduro's predecessor and political mentor, the late Hugo Chavez. Jaua accused them of working with Sumate on "the idea" of not recognizing the results of Dec. 8 national elections for mayors and city councils.

 

"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuela government," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

 

It said the recent trip by Keiderling, Moo and Hoffman consisted of "normal diplomatic engagement," adding: "We maintain regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum, including the ruling party."

 

Venezuela's economy looks increasingly troubled ahead of the Dec. 8 elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.

 

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, in a tweet, called Monday's expulsions "pure smoke to mask that (Maduro) can't manage the country." He claims Maduro was only able to prevail over him in a close April 14 election through electoral fraud.

 

The U.S. Republican congressman Marco Rubio of Florida said he was not surprised by the expulsions and predicted looming chaos for Venezuela that would be "sad" for its people.

 

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.

 

Maduro blames sabotage by the "extreme right" for the blackouts and food shortages, but has provided no evidence. Like Chavez, he has a history of making unsubstantiated accusations against the United States and his political opponents.

 

Last week, Maduro said he had canceled a planned trip to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly due to an unspecified U.S. plot.

 

Since his election, Maduro has claimed five attempts to assassinate him have been foiled. In no instance did he provide evidence.

 

Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2010, when Chavez refused to accept a newly named U.S. ambassador.

 

The last time Venezuela expelled U.S. diplomats was on March 5, when it ejected two military attaches for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation. That move came several hours before Maduro announced that Chavez had died of cancer.

 

Chavez governed Venezuela for 14 years, solidifying control of all branches of government as he won solid backing from the poor with generous social spending and blamed the United States for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow him in 2002.

 

In recent years, however, Venezuela's woes have been compounded by corruption, rampant violent crime, worsening power outages and increasing shortages of foods and medicines.

 

At the same time, Maduro's government has been accused by international human rights and press freedom groups of cracking down on free speech and independent media political activity.

 

___

 

Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.

Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Pakistan and evacuated nonessential government personnel from the country's second largest city because of a specific threat to the consulate there, a U.S. official said Friday.

   The move was not related to the threat of an al-Qaida attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.

   According to U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Meghan Gregonis, the U.S. is shifting its nonessential staff from the consulate in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad.

   Emergency personnel will stay in Lahore, and embassy officials do not know when the consulate will reopen, she said.

   "We received information regarding a threat to the consulate," said Gregonis. "As a precautionary measure, we are undertaking a drawdown of all except emergency personnel."

   The consulate in Lahore was already scheduled to be closed for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr from Thursday through Sunday.

   The personnel drawdown at the Lahore consulate was precautionary and wasn't related to the recent closures of numerous U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world, said two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the order.

   Earlier this week, 19 U.S. diplomatic outposts in 16 countries in the Middle East and Africa were closed to the public through Saturday and nonessential personnel were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen after U.S. intelligence officials said they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaida's top leader about plans for a major terror attack.

   None of the consulates in Pakistan or the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad were affected by the earlier closures.

   On Thursday, the State Department issued a travel warning saying the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups posed a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan.

   The country has faced a bloody insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in recent years that has killed over 40,000 civilians and security personnel, and is also believed to be home base for al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Most of the militant attacks have been in the northwest and southwest along the border with Afghanistan.

   Gunmen killed six people and wounded 15 others Friday in an attack on a former lawmaker outside a mosque in Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, said police officer Bashir Ahmad Barohi. The lawmaker escaped unharmed. A day earlier, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 30 people at a police funeral in Quetta.

   Pakistan's major cities, including Lahore, have also experienced periodic attacks.

   A powerful bomb exploded at a busy market street in Lahore in early July, killing at least four people and wounding nearly 50.

   Lahore is considered Pakistan's cultural capital and has a population of at least 10 million people.

   A CIA contractor shot to death two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011 who he said were trying to rob him. The incident severely damaged relations between Pakistan and the U.S. The contractor, Raymond Davis, was released by Pakistan in March 2011 after the families of the victims were paid over $2 million.

 

___

 

Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Published in National News

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