Caracas, Venezuela - President Nicolas Maduro announced Monday the expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and two other embassy employees for allegedly conspiring with "the extreme right" to sabotage the economy and power grid.
Maduro made the announcement during a live TV appearance and said they had 48 hours to leave the country.
"Out of Venezuela," the leftist leader shouted, then added in English: "Yankees go home!"
Maduro said a group of embassy officials that his government had been following for months was "dedicated to meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right, to financing it and feeding its actions to sabotage the electrical system and the Venezuela economy."
"I have proof here in my hands," he said, though he did not offer any details on the diplomats' alleged transgressions other than to say they met with opposition and labor leaders in the southwestern state of Bolivar, which is home to a number of troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela's main hydroelectric plant.
The expulsion of Charge D'Affaires Kelly Keiderling, who is the top embassy official in the absence of an ambassador, and the other two diplomats comes as Venezuela's economy looks increasingly troubled during the approach to Dec. 8 municipal elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.
The U.S. Embassy had not yet been officially informed of the expulsions when Maduro announced them, said Gregory Adams, its acting deputy chief of mission.
Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2010, when the late President Hugo Chavez refused to accept a newly named U.S. ambassador. In 2008, Chavez expelled then-U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy in "solidarity" with Bolivia, which was booting the U.S. ambassador there, but allowed him to return the following year.
Keiderling arrived at the embassy in July 2011 as deputy chief of mission after previously working in embassies including in Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Botswana, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Interests section in Cuba.
The oil-rich OPEC member country has been plagued by worsening power outages since 2010. The opposition blames neglect and poor maintenance, while alleging mismanagement and corruption at struggling state-owned aluminum, iron and bauxite foundries in Bolivar.
Maduro blames sabotage by the "extreme right" for the blackouts and food shortages, but has provided no evidence. Like Chavez, he has a history of making unsubstantiated accusations against the United States and his political opponents.
Last week, Maduro said he had canceled a planned trip to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly due to an unspecified U.S. plot. Since his April election, Maduro has claimed five attempts to assassinate him have been foiled. In no instance did he provide evidence.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, in a tweet, called Monday's expulsions "pure smoke to mask that (Maduro) can't handle the country."