Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela braced Tuesday for more dueling protests by supporters and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro, as his government gave three US diplomats two days to leave the country.
The United States denied as baseless Venezuela's allegations that the three diplomats were trying to organize protests.
Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader facing an arrest warrant, said he would take part in Tuesday's rally.
Tension is likely to brim throughout the day because both rallies, unlike previous ones, are scheduled to take part in the same part of Caracas.
Maduro is grappling with angry student protests that began in the interior of the oil-rich country and boiled over last week in street clashes in Caracas that left three dead.
Students and other opponents of Maduro are angry about living conditions -- rampant crime, dismal job prospects, high inflation and other woes -- in the country with the world's biggest proven oil reserves.
The main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, governor of the northern state of Miranda and defeated by Maduro in last year's election to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, said he would take part in the rally, even though he did not agree with the students' strategy. He says now is not the time to try force Maduro's exit.
"We may have differences but we feel solidarity," Capriles said.
Lopez's People's Will Party released a video which it said showed armed men wearing helmets breaking down a door to get into its headquarters.
Shortly after Lopez said he would take part in the anti-government rally, Maduro called one by employees of the state-run oil company in the same area of Caracas.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua identified the Americans declared "persona non grata" as Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark, all said to be second secretaries at the US embassy.
Jaua charged that the embassy had sent "operatives" to universities to train and finance youth organizations "through which the violence in Venezuela is promoted."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington had not yet been formally notified of the Venezuelan action, and rejected the accusations made against the diplomats.
"The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protesters in Venezuela is baseless and false," she said.
The expulsions were first announced Sunday night in a speech by Maduro. He accused the diplomats of meeting with student protest leaders under the guise of offering them visas.
"Let them go conspire in Washington," he said.
- Inflation, goods shortages at issue -
Venezuelan officials have charged that student leaders received training in Mexico and the foreign ministry on Sunday accused Washington of seeking to "legitimize attempts to destabilize" the government.
The protests flared up on February 4 when students at a university in the western state of Tachira staged a demonstration against rampant crime after a student was raped.
Violence after an anti-government rally last Wednesday left three people dead.
Since then, as the protests spread to other cities, student grievances have expanded to demands that the government release jailed protesters.
They have also drawn attention to soaring inflation and shortages of many basic goods.
Protests in Caracas last week were the biggest against the government since Maduro took office in April, succeeding Chavez.
On Monday, opposition protesters marched peacefully to headquarters of the National Telecommunications Commission to protest censorship.
- Tense US-Venezuela ties -
Venezuela's relations with Washington, long strained under Chavez, have remained sour and distrustful under Maduro, who has hewed to his predecessor's socialist policies.
In late September, Maduro kicked out three other US diplomats, on accusations of conspiring with government opponents. The two countries have had no ambassadors since 2010.
The latest diplomatic confrontation came after US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement Saturday expressing deep concern over the rising tensions and violence in Venezuela.
Lopez, the opposition leader most closely identified with the protests, has managed to elude arrest, even while taunting the government on Twitter.
The 42-year-old Lopez and two other opposition leaders -- deputy Maria Corina Machado and the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, Antonio Ledezma -- advocate using street protests to force Maduro from office.
The strategy, which they dub "the exit," is controversial even within the opposition.
Capriles, the opposition's candidate in Venezuela's last two presidential elections, has warned that conditions are not ripe for it, despite public discontent over the country's deepening economic problems.
- Politics & Government
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Nicolas Maduro
- Leopoldo Lopez
- Henrique Capriles