Nicolás Maduro expels 3 US officials amid protest tensions

Feb 17 2014, 13:36 IST
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SummaryPresident Nicolás Maduro on Sunday ordered the expulsion of three US 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.

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.''

Nicolás Maduro on Sunday urged Lopez for his own safety to avoid a media “show'' and accept an offer to negotiate his surrender. He claimed that some sectors of the extreme right-wing want to assassinate Lopez to provoke a political crisis.

Lopez's comments came after security forces raided his home and that of his parents over the weekend, seeking to serve the arrest order. Lopez wasn't at either residence when the officials arrived around midnight to the sound of banging pots and pans by neighbors protesting what they consider an arbitrary detention order.

The raids capped another night of protests during which security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of about 500 students who vowed to remain on the streets until all arrested anti-government demonstrators are released.

More protests took place Sunday, and authorities said 18 people were injured.

Lopez is the most prominent of a group of opposition hard-liners who are challenging two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of the anti-government movement.

Nicolás Maduro considers him a puppet of U.S. ambitions to regain dominance over South America's largest oil-producing economy.

Sunday's expulsion of US diplomats was the third by Nicolás Maduro.

In March, hours before announcing the death of Hugo Chavez, he expelled two US diplomats while suggesting the United States might have been behind the leader's cancer. Then in a fiery speech last September, he ordered the most senior US official in Venezuela and two others to leave, for allegedly helping opponents sabotage the electrical grid. In each case the US retaliated in kind.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday expressed concern over the violence surrounding Venezuela's protests, the detention of dozens of demonstrators and the “These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully.'' Kerry said in a statement.

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