The United States has expelled the Venezuelan ambassador and sanctioned two Venezuelan officials close to President Hugo Chavez for aiding Colombia's leftist rebels as tension escalated with Venezuela and its ally Bolivia.
The US expulsion on Friday was in response to similar moves by Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who earlier ordered the US envoys out of their countries.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Chavez and Morales were acting desperately to cope with increasing domestic opposition to their leadership.
"This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders," McCormack said, adding they were trying to deflect attention away from their domestic woes. "That's part of the playbook."
The diplomatic turmoil began when Morales on Wednesday expelled the ambassador, accusing him of supporting groups in the country opposed to his socialist policies. Washington then ordered to Bolivian envoy to leave.
Chavez, wanting to show solidarity with Morales, announced Thursday night the American ambassador in Caracas had been expelled and recalled his own envoy in Washington. McCormack rejected the accusation against the US ambassadors.
"The charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false and the leaders of those countries know it," McCormack said.
Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department on Friday froze any assets in the United States belonging to two high-ranking Venezuelan intelligence officials and a third former official on suspicion of arming leftist insugents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"Today's designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted, and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents," said Adam J Szubin, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Morales has faced mass demonstrations involving separatist movements in five provinces over his plans to redistribute oil wealth. Several people have died in the protests.
"Both President Morales and President Chavez face serious internal issues, particularly in Bolivia," McCormack said. "President Chavez is clearly worried about his protege in Bolivia."
The Treasury Department's steps targeted Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, director of Venezuela's Military Intelligence Directorate, and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva, head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services. The third individual, Ramon
Rodriguez Chacin, formerly headed Venezuela's Interior Ministry.
McCormack said the sanctions against the three Venezuelans were not related to the latest diplomatic dispute and they had been in line for months over concerns the Venezuelan government was assisting FARC, which stands for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Meanwhile, Chavez has embraced closer military relations with the Russians. Two Russian TU-160 "Blackjack" bombers arrived in Venezuela this week and Russian naval ships were en route to the South American country to participate in military exercises in the Caribbean.
The commander of Russia's Air Force commander touted the bomber flights as showing the fleet has a global reach.
"We have tested ourselves, and our bombers are capable of making flights to any region in the world," Colonel General Pavel Androsov said.
McCormack said the United States was closely monitoring the military exercises, and dismissed the effectiveness of the Russian military.