By Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela ordered American diplomats on Tuesday to leave within 72 hours after President Nicolas Maduro accused U.S. counterpart Donald Trump of cyber “sabotage” that plunged the South American country into its worst blackout on record.
“The presence on Venezuelan soil of these officials represents a risk for the peace, unity and stability of the country,” the government said in a statement, after talks broke down over maintaining diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab said on Tuesday he was asking Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Supreme Court to open an investigation into opposition leader Juan Guaido for participating in the alleged “sabotage.”
Washington has taken the lead in recognising Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president after the 35-year-old congress chief declared himself interim president in January, calling Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud. Most countries in Europe and Latin America have followed suit.
The United States has implemented a raft of sanctions to put pressure on Maduro, and the U.S. special envoy on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said on Tuesday that Washington was prepared to impose “very significant” additional sanctions in the coming days against financial institutions deemed to be supporting Maduro’s government.
Maduro, who retains control of the military and other state institutions as well as the backing of Russia and China, has blamed Washington for his nation’s economic turmoil and denounced Guaido as a puppet of the United States.
With the power blackout in its sixth day, hospitals struggled to keep equipment running, food rotted in the tropical heat and exports from the country’s main oil terminal were shut down.
Guaido joined a series of small opposition demonstrations around Caracas on Tuesday afternoon to protest the blackout, where he mocked the prosecutor’s investigation.
“So that guy comes out and says we’re guilty of a supposed sabotage when all of Venezuela knows, when the whole world knows, who the real saboteur is … I’m going to call him out by name: Maduro!” he shouted.
The crowd in response shouted a profane insult, part of an increasingly common call-and-response game played in public places to express discontent with the socialist leader.
Power returned to many parts of the country on Tuesday, including some areas that had not had electricity since last Thursday, according to witnesses and social media.
But power was still out in parts of the capital of Caracas and the western region near the border with Colombia.
Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said power had been restored in the “vast majority” of the country.
“We are on our way to consolidating the victory of the Venezuelan people over this attack,” said Rodriguez. He added that the “electricity war continues,” a sign that authorities may still be concerned about ongoing outages.
Julio Castro, of nongovernmental organisation Doctors for Health, said on Twitter on Monday night that 24 people had died in public hospitals since the start of the blackout. He has said that the blackout likely aggravated existing medical conditions but does not directly attribute any deaths to the outages.
The blackout was likely caused by a technical problem with transmission lines linking the Guri hydroelectric plant in southeastern Venezuela to the national power grid, experts told Reuters.
Maduro blamed Washington for organising what he said was a sophisticated cyber attack on Venezuela’s hydroelectric power operations.
“Donald Trump is most responsible for the cyber attack on the Venezuelan electricity system,” Maduro said in a broadcast from the Miraflores presidential palace on Monday night.
“This is a technology that only the government of the United States possesses.”
The U.S. State Department had already announced that it would withdraw its remaining diplomatic staff from Venezuela this week.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview on Tuesday with radio show Texas Standard that decisions regarding Venezuela had been affected by the combination of a rapidly deteriorating situation and U.S. diplomats being “in harm’s way.”
Maduro, elected in 2013 following the death of his political mentor Hugo Chavez, officially broke diplomatic relations with the United States on Jan. 23 when it recognised Guaido. Washington evacuated most of its diplomatic staff two days later.
Amid signs of a growing crackdown on media, the National Press Workers’ Union said that prominent radio journalist Luis Carlos Diaz was arrested on Monday by intelligence agents, who raided his home in Caracas.
The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Venezuelan authorities briefly detained American journalist Cody Weddle last week before ordering him to leave the country.
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Rosalba O’Brien)