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Venezuela's president expels 3 US officials as hunted opposition leader urges another protest

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CARACAS, Venezuela - President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday ordered the expulsion of three U.S. Embassy officials after Washington came to the defence of an opposition hard-liner accused by Venezuela's leader of responsibility for bloodshed during anti-government protests.

Maduro didn't identify the consular officials but charged that intelligence officials who tailed them the past two months found evidence they were trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, a hotbed of recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua was scheduled to provide more details Monday.

Triggering the expulsion was the Obama administration's siding with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is being hunted by police as Maduro accuses him of leading a "fascist" plot to oust the socialist government two months after it won mayoral elections by a landslide.

Maduro said State Department official Alex Lee, in a phone conversation with Venezuela's ambassador to the Washington-based Organization of American States, warned that arresting the 42-year-old former mayor would bring serious negative consequences with international ramifications.

"These are unacceptable, insolent demands," Maduro said during a televised address Sunday night. "I don't take orders from anyone in the world."

There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. government, which has denied the accusations that it is plotting with the opposition against him. The U.S. hasn't had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010.

The Harvard-educated Lopez has been at the centre of rising tensions in Venezuela since he led the biggest demonstration yet against Maduro's 10-month-old government, mobilizing more than 10,000 people on Wednesday to peacefully protest hardships ranging from rampant crime to 56 per cent inflation.

The government blamed him for the mayhem that erupted after the rally ended and a group of students battled with security forces and armed pro-government militias, leaving three dead. Most of the demonstrators had gone home before the violence broke out.

In his TV speech, Maduro called for a march by oil workers Tuesday beginning at the same central plaza in Caracas where Lopez said he would rally with supporters dressed in white the same day, setting up the potential for clashes between the opposing forces.

Lopez announced his plans a few hours before Maduro's speech, appearing in a video shot at an undisclosed location. He said he didn't fear arrest but accused authorities of trying to violate his constitutional right to protest Maduro's government.

He said that after Tuesday's march to the Interior Ministry he planned to walk the final steps alone to the agency to deliver a petition demanding a full investigation of the government's role in the deaths. He said he was prepared to turn himself over to officials then and answer to an arrest order on charges ranging from terrorism and homicide to vandalism of public property.

"I haven't committed any crime," said Lopez, who hasn't been seen in public since a news conference Wednesday night after the bloodshed. "If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I'll submit myself to this persecution."

Maduro on Sunday urged Lopez for his own safety to avoid a media "show" and accept an offer to negotiate his surrender. He claimed that some sectors of the extreme right-wing want to assassinate Lopez to provoke a political crisis.

Lopez's comments came after security forces raided his home and that of his parents over the weekend, seeking to serve the arrest order. Lopez wasn't at either residence when the officials arrived around midnight to the sound of banging pots and pans by neighbours protesting what they consider an arbitrary detention order.

The raids capped another night of protests during which security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of about 500 students who vowed to remain on the streets until all arrested anti-government demonstrators are released.

More protests took place Sunday, and authorities said 18 people were injured.

Lopez is the most prominent of a group of opposition hard-liners who are challenging two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of the anti-government movement.

Maduro considers him a puppet of U.S. ambitions to regain dominance over South America's largest oil-producing economy.

Sunday's expulsion of U.S. diplomats was the third by Maduro.

In March, hours before announcing the death of Hugo Chavez, he expelled two U.S. diplomats while suggesting the United States might have been behind the leader's cancer. Then in a fiery speech last September, he ordered the most senior U.S. official in Venezuela and two others to leave, for allegedly helping opponents sabotage the electrical grid. In each case the U.S. retaliated in kind.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday expressed concern over the violence surrounding Venezuela's protests, the detention of dozens of demonstrators and the arrest order for Lopez.

"These actions have a chilling effect on citizens' rights to express their grievances peacefully." Kerry said in a statement

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman.

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Andrew Rosati contributed to this report.

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