US expels Venezuelan diplomats as election row escalates

The US has announced the tit-for-tat expulsion of two Venezuelan diplomats in a row sparked by Washington’s criticism of President Nicolas Maduro’s reelection.

The two Venezuelan diplomats were declared “personae non grata” and directed to leave the US within 48 hours, according to a statement from State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

The expulsion was ordered in response to the Maduro regime’s decision to expel two US diplomats earlier this week, the statement added.

Maduro announced on Tuesday the expulsion of the two top diplomats, Todd Robinson and Brian Naranjo, following the Trump administration’s criticism of last Sunday’s controversial presidential elections.

Maduro made the announcement at his confirmation ceremony in Caracas, accusing the men of interfering in the election and giving them 48 hours to leave Venezuela.

Maduro said the expulsions were “in defense of the dignity of the homeland”, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

“The accusations behind the Maduro regime’s decision are unjustified,” said Nauert’s statement.

“Our Embassy officers have carried out their official duties responsibly and consistent with diplomatic practice and applicable provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” she added.

Socialist leader Maduro won another six-year term on Sunday in an election derided by opposition groups and many in the international community.

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence called the elections “a sham” and the White House announced a series of new sanctions targeting the Venezuelan government.

Maduro has continued the huge social welfare programs and price control policies of Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, who steered the country toward socialism.

Many Venezuelans saw Chavez as the champion of the poor. Chavez’ hand-picked successor, Maduro won the 2013 presidential election.

Under the two leaders’ rule, the oil-dependent country has endured political tumult and economic misery, including food and medicine shortages, and hyperinflation.