CARACAS - Venezuela gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country on Monday, accusing them of conspiring against the government to incite protests that were the OPEC nation's most serious violence since President Nicolas Maduro's April election.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the three consular staff used visa visits to universities as cover for promoting student-lead protests.
The demonstrations, which have energized the opposition but show few signs they can oust Maduro, continued on Monday with rowdy protests around Caracas and various provincial cities. On Wednesday, the protests turned deadly and three people were fatally shot.
"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.
The U.S. State Department called the allegations "baseless and false," adding that Washington supported free expression and peaceful assembly in Venezuela and around the world.
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.
Critics dismiss such moves as theatrics used in times of national commotion to distract from more serious issues.
PROTESTS RUMBLE ON
Student demonstrators have vowed to stay in the street until Maduro resigns, though the 51-year-old former bus driver has vowed not to cede even a "millimetre" of power.
The Caracas protests have been limited to mostly upscale areas, and there has been little evidence that Venezuelans will join them en masse. Even so, thousands were out across the nation of 29 million people again on Monday.
Police fired tear gas at student protesters near the office of the Popular Will party, whose leader, Leopoldo Lopez, has been a main instigator of demonstrations.
Party workers said armed men presumed to be military intelligence officers burst into their premises seeking national co-ordinator Carlos Vecchio. Vecchio's current whereabouts were not clear.
Videos sent to media by Popular Will, which could not be independently identified, showed men entering the premises waving guns and trying to kick down a door.
The government has issued an arrest warrant for Lopez, a 42-year-old, U.S.-educated hardline opposition leader, on charges including murder and terrorism.
His whereabouts were unknown, though in an online video he promised to hand himself in on Tuesday and called on supporters to march with him to the Interior and Justice Ministry.
"Let's all go dressed in white to one place. Then, I will walk alone. I will not put any Venezuelan's life at risk," he tweeted on Monday.
In other demonstrations on Monday, students blocked several avenues in affluent neighbourhoods of Caracas.
Elsewhere, protesting students in the Andean city of San Cristobal burned tires, while residents reported trouble in Merida and on the island of Margarita.
"I'm not sure we're going to gain from this. But we have to do something," said dentistry student Rita Moreno, 19, among about 500 protesters in Caracas' affluent Altamira district.
The Andean Development Corporation suspended its popular annual marathon scheduled for this weekend in Caracas.
Venezuela's highly traded global bonds, which fluctuate sharply on civil unrest or political tension, remained near 18-month lows, though trading in U.S. markets was generally light due to the President's Day holiday.
Bank of America said in a research note on Monday that the protests were unlikely to result in a change of government, recommending that investors take advantage of attractive yields on bonds that mature in coming years.
VIOLENCE ON BOTH SIDES
Only 13 students were still detained after nearly 100 arrests in the past week. Complaints about violent acts by both sides have piled up over six consecutive days of confrontations between police and demonstrators.
Opposition activists say some detained student demonstrators have been tortured, while videos and photos circulating online show uniformed men firing on protesters. Maduro insists police have been restrained in the face of provocation and attacks.
The reporters' trade union said 11 journalists have been arrested, some of whom were beaten and had their equipment stolen while covering the unrest.
Venezuelan photographer Gabriel Osorio said that on Saturday troops hit him in the head with a pistol, shot him with rubber bullets and broke one of his ribs.
"I was working. I wasn't throwing rocks," Osorio told a local newspaper. "I yelled 'I'm with the press,' but that actually seemed to be what triggered their attack."
Government leaders have denounced violence by demonstrators linked to opposition marches, including vandalizing buildings and burning of trash along city avenues.
Hooded protesters have gathered outside the headquarters of state TV channel VTV for the past few nights, lighting fires in the streets and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
"If anyone thinks they're going to halt the activities of (state TV), they're sorely mistaken," said the channel's president, Yuri Pimentel.