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White House expels three Venezuelan diplomats

White House expels three Venezuelan diplomats
A demonstrator waves a flag with the image of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at a rally in support of the government in Caracas on Tuesday. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration Tuesday expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for the expulsion of three U.S. officials a week ago.

Two first secretaries and a second secretary from the embassy were given 48 hours to depart, the State Department said.

The three expelled American diplomats were accused of fomenting civil unrest that has rocked the government of President Nicolas Maduro. U.S. officials said the expulsions were not justified.

The government of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, has often claimed that the United States is to blame for threats to the country. The Venezuelan government is facing protests over mounting economic hardship and suppression of civil liberties. At least 15 people have died in the demonstrations.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said it had chosen Maximilien Arvelaiz, the former ambassador to Brazil, as its new envoy to the United States. But the State Department said it would agree to exchange ambassadors only when it saw a new spirit of cooperation from Caracas.

"We have indicated our openness to a more constructive relationship with Venezuela," said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman. "But again, recent actions, including expelling three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult."

Maduro claimed in a television broadcast Tuesday night that his foreign minister had sought to call U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to try to improve relations, but Kerry would not take the call.

The death toll from more than two weeks of demonstrations rose to at least 15 after a man was reportedly shot to death inside a supermarket in central Aragua state during a looting incident. Twenty-four other retail establishments were reported looted Tuesday night in Aragua.

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Residents complained that authorities made no effort to stop the looting. Aragua Gov. Tareck El Aissami confirmed the death and looting.

"The victims are Venezuelans, and we are all saddened," El Aissami said

Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.

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