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September 22, 2017

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Venezuela gears up for more dueling protests

CARACAS--Venezuela braced Tuesday for more dueling protests by supporters and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro, as his government gave three U.S. diplomats two days to leave the country.

The United States denied as baseless Venezuela's allegations that the three diplomats were trying to organize protests.

Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader facing an arrest warrant, said he would take part in Tuesday's rally.

Tension is likely to brim throughout the day because both rallies, unlike previous ones, are scheduled to take part in the same part of Caracas.

Maduro is grappling with angry student protests that began in the interior of the oil-rich country and boiled over last week in street clashes in Caracas that left three dead.

Students and other opponents of Maduro are angry about living conditions — rampant crime, dismal job prospects, high inflation and other woes — in the country with the world's biggest proven oil reserves.

The main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, governor of the northern state of Miranda and defeated by Maduro in last year's election to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, said he would take part in the rally, even though he did not agree with the students' strategy. He says now is not the time to try force Maduro's exit.

"We may have differences but we feel solidarity," Capriles said.

Lopez's People's Will Party released a video that it said showed armed men wearing helmets breaking down a door to get into its headquarters.

Shortly after Lopez said he would take part in the anti-government rally, Maduro called one by employees of the state-run oil company in the same area of Caracas.

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua identified the Americans declared "persona non grata" as Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark, all said to be second secretaries at the U.S. embassy.

Jaua charged that the embassy had sent "operatives" to universities to train and finance youth organizations "through which the violence in Venezuela is promoted."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington had not yet been formally notified of the Venezuelan action and rejected the accusations made against the diplomats.

"The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protesters in Venezuela is baseless and false," she said.

The expulsions were first announced Sunday night in a speech by Maduro. He accused the diplomats of meeting with student protest leaders under the guise of offering them visas.

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