updated 11/9/2008 3:29:26 PM ET 2008-11-09T20:29:26

The State Department is asking officials at the Venezuelan consulate in Houston to leave the country after the South American government moved its offices in that city before receiving permission.

The Venezuelan officials were being asked to depart because the unauthorized move violated international protocol, said Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, on Saturday. She said one consular officer was being allowed to remain temporarily in Houston so that Venezuela can continue to operate a consulate until a permanent location is approved.

The dispute stems from the Venezuelan Consulate's request in August to move to another Houston location. Before the State Department issued its approval, U.S. officials learned the consulate had already leased space and began operations at the new location. The State Department ordered Venezuela on Oct. 2 to cease operations, and when it had not, the U.S. revoked their privileges on Oct. 31.

Consulate staff and officials were then "invited to depart the United States," Thompson said.

"Until Venezuela makes its request ... we will continue to work with them to resolve staffing," she said.

The Houston Chronicle reported Saturday that the consular office was locked on Friday and a notice taped in the window said it would remain closed until further notice for reasons "beyond our control." A similar notice was posted on the consulate Web site on Saturday.

Thompson said she did not have information on how many people were being asked to leave the U.S. or when.

The move comes following recent diplomatic strains between the two countries. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sept. 11 ordered U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy to leave Venezuela. The next day, the State Department said it was expelling the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States. Chavez accused Duddy of conspiring against the Venezuelan government, a charge U.S. officials deny.

Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of Venezuela's national oil company, has its headquarters in Houston.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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