The United States escalated a major diplomatic crisis with Venezuela on Friday, imposing sanctions on two senior Venezuelan government officials the U.S. Treasury Department accused of aiding drug traffickers in Colombia.
The named were Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva, both high-ranking intelligence officials who are aides to President Hugo Chavez. A former government minister, Ramon Emilio Rodriguez Chacin, was also named.
The U.S. Treasury said Friday the three materially assisted the narcotics trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, describing the leftist group as a narco-terrorist organization.
Washington was also preparing to eject Venezuela's top diplomat in the United States, a U.S. official told Reuters, although Chavez tried to pre-empt that move by telling him to pack his bags and go home on Thursday.
Chavez said Thursday's move was made in support of his leftist South American ally President Evo Morales of Bolivia, where violent anti-government protests have killed eight people. Bolivia and the United States have expelled their respective ambassadors too this week after Morales accused Washington of supporting the opposition.
Chavez said he would not restore relations with the United States at least until his stated foe President Bush leaves the White House in January.
The crisis and Chavez's threat to cut off oil shipments to the United States sent debt tumbling in the OPEC nation and plunged relations between the superpower and one of its top energy suppliers to their lowest point in years.
Venezuela has some of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and despite Chavez's clashes with the Bush administration, he has maintained oil supplies and never before expelled a U.S. ambassador.