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U.S. defends diplomats expelled from Venezuela

Pedestrians walk past a wall outside the U.S. embassy in Caracas October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Pedestrians walk past a wall outside the U.S. embassy in Caracas October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela on Tuesday defended three diplomats expelled by President Nicolas Maduro, rejecting charges they were involved in espionage and accusations Washington is trying to destabilize the OPEC nation.

In the latest spat between the ideological foes, Maduro on Monday ordered out three U.S. diplomats including Kelly Keiderling, temporarily in charge of the mission.

He alleged they had been meeting with "right wing" opposition leaders and encouraging acts of sabotage against the South American nation's electricity grid and economy.

"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government," the embassy said in a statement. "We likewise reject the specific claims against the three members of our embassy."

The U.S. government is still evaluating how it will respond and may take reciprocal action in accordance with the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, the statement said.

Venezuelan state TV, to a backdrop of dramatic music, showed images of diplomatic vehicles and a flight manifest with the names of the U.S. officials that commentators said was proof they met with the opposition in the southeast of the nation.

"The three people were in Bolivar state conducting normal diplomatic engagement," the U.S. Embassy statement said.

"We maintain regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum ... This is what diplomats do."

The expulsions throw a wrench into cautious efforts this year to restore full diplomatic ties that were frayed for most of the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

Maduro, Chavez's successor, named a new acting head of Venezuela's U.S. diplomatic mission shortly after his April election in what many took as a sign of warming relations.

That official may now face expulsion in the tit-for-tat style retaliation that has characterized similar incidents in the past.

Chavez in 2008 expelled Ambassador Patrick Duddy over what he called Washington's involvement in violent protests in Bolivia. In 2010, he blocked the nomination of diplomat Larry Palmer over comments that there were "clear ties" between members of Chavez's government and leftist Colombian rebels.

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthai Osterman)

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