Venezuela ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats on Monday on charges of recruiting university students to lead demonstrations that have left three dead in the OPEC nation's most serious violence since President Nicolas Maduro's election in April.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the three consular staff had used visa visits to universities as cover for promoting opposition protests by students, adding they had 48 hours to leave the country.
The demonstrations, which have energized the opposition but show few signs of ousting President Nicolas Maduro, continued on Monday with scattered protests in Caracas and various provincial cities.
"They have been visiting universities with the pretext of granting visas," said Jaua, who often faced off against police during his own days as a student demonstrator.
"But that is a cover for making contacts with (student) leaders to offer them training and financing to create youth groups that generate violence," he told reporters.
U.S. embassy officials were not immediately available to comment.
Venezuela has routinely expelled U.S. diplomats in recent years as the relationship between the two countries frayed during the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Maduro ousted three diplomats in October on charges of stirring up labor protests, and also expelled two others in 2013 on the day Chavez died of cancer.
Critics pass off such moves as theatrics used in times of national commotion to distract from more serious issues.