US expels two Venezuelan diplomats: official

The United States has expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat move after Caracas ordered two US Air Force officers out of the country, a US official told AFP Monday.

Second Secretary Orlando Jose Montanes and consular official Victor Tamacaro were declared "persona non grata" by the United States on Saturday and left the country Sunday, the State Department official said on condition of anonymity.

A spokesman contacted by AFP did not give any explanation for the expulsion of the Venezuelan diplomats, saying simply that the Vienna conventions allow anybody to be declared "persona non grata."

The expulsion came just 24 hours after the funeral of ex-president Hugo Chavez, who died last week after losing his battle with cancer, adding a new wrinkle to the already strained relations between the two countries.

The two countries have not had ambassadors in their respective capitals since 2010 and diplomatic relations have not normalized despite several direct contacts between the governments.

Venezuela will hold a new presidential vote on April 14, with newly sworn-in interim President Nicolas Maduro -- Chavez's handpicked successor -- the heavy favorite to win.

It was Maduro who last week announced the expulsion of two US military attaches -- shortly before he announced the death of president Chavez.

Maduro accused the Americans of acting to destabilize the country, going as far as to suggest the US was behind the cancer that killed Chavez.

The US State Department branded the allegations "absurd."