Venezuelan National Guard members stand in line during an anti-government protest in Caracas on February 16, 2014. (Photo credit: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
By Girish Gupta, USA TODAY
CARACAS - Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Sunday he was expelling three U.S. consular officials, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition forces to foment unrest as violent protests ran into a fifth straight night.
"We are determined to defend our country," said Maduro on state television Sunday night.
The expulsions come after two weeks of sporadic protests against across the country. Students and opposition supporters have taken to the streets, angry with the country's high murder rate and crumbling economy.
Tear gas and water cannons were used in Caracas repeatedly last week to disperse troublemakers who pelted police with rocks and burned trash in the streets. At least three people have been killed in the violence.
Opposition leader Leopoldo López has backed the protests though now faces an arrest warrant on charges of murder and terrorism. He will lead a march on Tuesday through Caracas and says he will surrender to authorities if arrested.
"I've got nothing to fear. I've done nothing wrong," he said in a video released on YouTube on Sunday evening, calling for the march to be peaceful. "If there is an illegal decision to jail me, I will accept it... We're on the right side of history, the right side of justice."
In a statement released on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is "deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week's protests in Venezuela."
Kerry said the administration is "particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo López."
The government here described the statement as part of Washington's attempts to "promote and legitimize the destabilization of Venezuelan democracy."
The expulsion of U.S. diplomats is a common political maneuver here. Three U.S. diplomats were expelled in September, accused of sabotaging the country's economy. "Yankees, go home!" Maduro said definitely on state television when making the announcement.
Just hours before announcing the death of predecessor Hugo Chávez in March, Maduro expelled two U.S. diplomats, accusing them of spying. In the same televised address, he accused the United States of poisoning Chávez, who died from cancer.
The two countries have not had ambassador-level links since 2010. Maduro offered no details of who would be expelled .