By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Washington has expelled Venezuela's highest-ranking diplomat in the United States and two others from its embassy in retaliation for Venezuela's booting out three American diplomats accused of fomenting sabotage, both governments said on Wednesday.
The flare-up appears to derail some tentative moves to improve relations between Caracas and Washington since President Nicolas Maduro took over this year from the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, whose 14-year rule was halted by cancer.
"We repudiate this expulsion," Maduro's government said in a statement, confirming that its acting head of mission, Calixto Ortega, and two others had been ordered out.
"This cannot be considered a reciprocal decision, if you look at the clear conduct of our officials, who have at no time dared to meet groups opposed to President Barack Obama's government, or people interested in acting against it."
Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats this week on charges they were involved in promoting anti-government plots and sabotage in the OPEC nation, whose people are bitterly divided between "Chavistas" and the opposition.
The expelled Americans included Kelly Keiderling, who was in charge of the Caracas mission where Washington has been without an ambassador since Chavez kicked out the last one in 2008.
The U.S. government denied the allegations, saying the officials were conducting normal diplomatic activities, including meeting a wide cross-section of Venezuelan society.
"This action by the Venezuelan government is clearly an effort to distract from its domestic problems and is not a serious way for a country to conduct its foreign policy," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Venezuelan state TV has been broadcasting video, set to menacing-sounding music, of a trip the three Americans made to Bolivar state, in the southeast of the country. It showed them holding meetings there, including with a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, Sumate.
"Of course we met politicians ... just like Venezuelan diplomats in Washington," Keiderling told reporters late on Tuesday before the three headed out on Wednesday. "If they were not going out freely, they would not be doing their job."
Critics say Maduro is continuing a Chavez-era tactic of inventing crises to divert focus from economic and social ills affecting the South American nation's 29 million people.
Venezuelan government supporters, however, point to a history of U.S. opposition to socialism in Venezuela, including Washington's endorsement of a brief coup against Chavez in 2002.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, on a trip to Bolivar state, berated the government for blaming others rather than fixing grassroots problems, and called for a protest vote in upcoming December 8 local elections.
"Do you think that with this expulsion they'll fix the problem of power-cuts?" he asked in a speech. "It's not a matter of sabotage. There's no light because they stole the money intended for investment in electricity."
Since winning the election in April, Maduro, 50, has swung between vociferous denunciations of U.S. "imperialism" and appeals for better relations.
Despite their frayed political relations, the United States remains Venezuela's main oil export market, receiving an average of around 800,000 barrels per day of crude and refined products each month this year, according to U.S. government data.
That puts it behind only Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico on the list of the United States' most important suppliers of oil.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Daniel Wallis in Caracas, Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Vicki Allen)