The United States has expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in response to their government's decision to order three US officials out of Venezuela.
The US government gave 48-hour deadline on Tuesday to Venezuelan charge d'affaires Calixto Ortega Rios, Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales at the Washington embassy and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida at the Houston consulate, to leave the country.
The day that the government of President (Barack) Obama rectifies the situation we will establish new points of contact to discuss common issues
The move comes a day after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced the expulsion of US charge d'affaires Kelly Keiderling and two other diplomats, accusing them of conspiring with "the extreme right" to sabotage the South American country's economy and power grid.
US officials vigorously denied the allegation.
"It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel US diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries," the US State Department said.
Maduro said earlier on Tuesday that socialist-led Venezuela would not have cordial relations with the US as long as its diplomats continued what he alleged were attempts to destabilise his country.
"The day that the government of President (Barack) Obama rectifies the situation, we will establish new points of contact to discuss common issues," said Maduro, the hand-picked successor to late President Hugo Chavez.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the allegations were related to the US Embassy workers' travel to Bolivar state, which is home to troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela's main hydroelectric plant.
"They were there conducting normal diplomatic engagement, as we've said in the past and should come as no surprise," Psaki said.
In a news conference in Caracas, Keiderling said she and the other diplomats would leave Venezuela on Wednesday.
She said that if the accusation against them was that they had met with Venezuelans then "it is true. We met with Venezuelans. If we aren't talking with these people, we aren't doing our jobs."
Expelled with Keiderling, the top embassy official in the absence of an ambassador, were consular officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who works in the embassy's political section.
On Monday, Venezuelan state TV showed photographs and video of the three US diplomats in Bolivar and the neighbouring state of Amazonas, including making visits to offices of Sumate, which helped organise a failed 2004 recall vote against Chavez.
Threat to elections
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua accused them of working with Sumate on "the idea" of not recognising the results of 8 December elections for mayors and city councils.
Dashiell Lopez, a board member of Sumate, denied that members of the group had met with the expelled diplomats. He said in a phone interview on Tuesday that Sumate only lent its facilities for a meeting last week between the diplomats and religious groups.
Maduro has 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."
Venezuela's economy is increasingly struggling ahead of the 8 Decemeber elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.