Venezuela expels top U.S. diplomat for fomenting 'sabotage'


* U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Keiderling, two others targeted

* Socialist President Maduro says, "Yankees go home!"

* No confirmation or comment made by U.S. Embassy

By Brian Ellsworth and Eyanir Chinea

CARACAS, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Venezuelan President NicolasMaduro said on Monday he was expelling the top U.S. diplomat inthe South American nation and two others, accusing them ofmeeting with opposition leaders and encouraging "acts ofsabotage" against his country.

It was the latest of several public disputes between thesocialist leader and the United States since Maduro won an Aprilelection following the death of his mentor and predecessor HugoChavez.

Maduro said Venezuelan authorities had for months followedthe three U.S. diplomats, and that he had now given them 48hours to leave the OPEC member country.

"We detected a group of U.S. embassy officials dedicated tomeeting the far-right and to financing and encouraging acts ofsabotage against the electrical system and Venezuela's economy,"the president said in a televised speech.

"I have the proof here in my hands," Maduro added. "...Yankees go home! Get out of Venezuela! Get out of here! I don'tcare what actions the government of Barack Obama takes."

He said Venezuela was expelling Kelly Keiderling, who asU.S. chargé d'affaires is the senior American diplomat inVenezuela because the United States has no ambassador to thecountry. According to a U.S. Embassy website, she has beenassigned to Caracas since July 2011 as deputy chief of mission,and was temporarily serving as the charge d'affaires.

Venezuela identified the other two diplomats as ElizabethHunderland and David Mutt. The U.S. Embassy had no immediatecomment or confirmation regarding the expulsions.

"I'm not going to allow any action that stirs violence inthis country," Maduro added.

Responding to the expulsion of the three U.S. diplomats,opposition leader Henrique Capriles said no one believed the"joke alerts" being issued by Maduro's team.

"It's just smoke to cover up that they can't manage thecountry!" Capriles, who contested the election result afterlosing to Maduro in April, said on Twitter.

Six months ago, Maduro expelled two U.S. military attacheshours before announcing Chavez's death from cancer, later sayingthat one of them was trying to stir up a coup against Chavez.

Maduro has also suggested Chavez's illness could have beencaused by his enemies, including the United States. The UnitedStates and others called that allegation absurd.

Since then, the president has loudly denounced a U.S.-led"economic war" that has led to product shortages and blackouts.

His critics say those problems are the result of aninefficient currency control system that encourages corruption,as well as under-investment in the country's creaking powergrid.

In the most recent diplomatic spat, Venezuela accusedWashington of "aggression" this month after Maduro's plane wasbriefly blocked from flying over Puerto Rico en route to China.

The U.S. government said it nevertheless approved the flightplan, which had not been properly submitted by Caracas.

U.S. President Barack Obama had said after Chavez's deaththat he hoped for a "constructive relationship" after years ofbilateral tensions.

But the United States and others have found it difficult toengage with the government, or opposition, without openingthemselves up to accusations of meddling in the OPEC nation.

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