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Maduro expels 3 US officials amid protest tensions

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday ordered the expulsion of three U.S. Embassy officials after Washington came to the defense of an opposition hard-liner accused by Venezuela's leader of responsibility for bloodshed during anti-government protests.

Maduro didn't identify the consular officials but charged that intelligence officials who tailed them the past two months found evidence they were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, a hotbed of recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua was scheduled to provide more details Monday.

Triggering the expulsion was the Obama administration's siding with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is being hunted by police as Maduro accuses him of leading a "fascist" plot to oust the socialist government two months after it won mayoral elections by a landslide.

Maduro said State Department official Alex Lee, in a phone conversation with Venezuela's ambassador to the Washington-based Organization of American States, warned that arresting the 42-year-old former mayor would bring serious negative consequences with international ramifications.

"These are unacceptable, insolent demands," Maduro said during a televised address Sunday night. "I don't take orders from anyone in the world."

There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. government, which has denied the accusations that it is plotting with the opposition against him. The U.S. hasn't had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010.

The Harvard-educated Lopez has been at the center of rising tensions in Venezuela since he led the biggest demonstration yet against Maduro's 10-month-old government, mobilizing more than 10,000 people on Wednesday to peacefully protest hardships ranging from rampant crime to 56 percent inflation.

The government blamed him for the mayhem that erupted after the rally ended and a group of students battled with security forces and armed pro-government militias, leaving three dead. Most of the demonstrators had gone home before the violence broke out.

In his TV speech, Maduro called for a march by oil workers Tuesday beginning at the same central plaza in Caracas where Lopez said he would rally with supporters dressed in white the same day, setting up the potential for clashes between the opposing forces.

Lopez announced his plans a few hours before Maduro's speech, appearing in a video shot at an undisclosed location. He said he didn't fear arrest but accused authorities of trying to violate his constitutional right to protest Maduro's government.

He said that after Tuesday's march to the Interior Ministry he planned to walk the final steps alone to the agency to deliver a petition demanding a full investigation of the government's role in the deaths. He said he was prepared to turn himself over to officials then and answer to an arrest order on charges ranging from terrorism and homicide to vandalism of public property.

"I haven't committed any crime," said Lopez, who hasn't been seen in public since a news conference Wednesday night after the bloodshed. "If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution."

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A demonstrator waves the Venezuelan flag during a protest asking for the disarmament of armed groups in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Feb. 16.

(AP)

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