The United States has expelled Venezuela's top diplomat and two others, after Venezuela kicked out three U.S. diplomats it accused of plotting sabotage.
The Caracas government criticized the U.S. response, saying the Venezuelan diplomats had not been meeting with groups opposed to U.S. President Barack Obama.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had accused U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kelly Keiderling and the two other U.S. officials of conspiring with the South American nation's political opposition when he announced their expulsion Monday. Keiderling ranks as the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela since the two countries have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.
The U.S. State Department has said it rejects allegations the U.S. was involved in "any type of conspiracy" to "destabilize" Venezuela's government. The U.S. embassy in Venezuela and Keiderling herself said the three diplomats' trip to Bolivar state was part of normal diplomatic engagement.
The State Department said it is "regrettable" that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials on what it called "groundless allegations." The department called the move "counterproductive" to the interests of both countries.
The dispute is a clear setback in Washington's attempts to improve ties with Caracas after the death of leftist leader and long-standing U.S. foe Hugo Chavez.
Footage aired on Venezuelan state television was said to prove the now-expelled U.S. diplomats met with opposition and labor leaders to sabotage Venezuela's economy and electrical system. The video showed three people in Bolivar state leaving the offices of Sumate, an electoral-monitoring group that in 2004 helped organize a failed recall vote against Mr. Maduro's predecessor, the late Mr. Chavez.
Venezuela's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, accused the U.S. officials of plotting with Sumate to not recognize the results of Venezuela's upcoming municipal elections on December 8 and to generate disorder, frustration and chaos among the Venezuelan people.
But some critics of President Maduro say he is continuing a Chavez tactic of creating a diplomatic crisis to divert people's attention from the country's economic problems.
Despite the two nations' strained relations, the U.S. remains Venezuela's top oil buyer.