World

Venezuela's Maduro orders U.S. diplomats out, blames 'sabotage' for blackouts

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.

Power reportedly returning to some parts of Venezuela 6 days in, but Caracas still adversely affected

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a broadcast at Miraflores Palace in Caracas late Monday. (Miraflores/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 links 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."

The U.S. and Canada are among several countries in the Americas that have recognized Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader pending a new election, 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 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.

'Electricity war' continues

Julio Castro, of nongovernmental organization 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.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said power had been restored in the "vast majority" of the country on Tuesday.

"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.

Caracas is in a state of "total chaos" as Venezuela enters its fifth day of widespread power outages, says Flaka, an anti-government activist and photojournalist in the capital city. 6:23

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.

'Donald Trump is most responsible'

Maduro blamed Washington for organizing what he said was a sophisticated cyberattack on Venezuela's hydroelectric power operations.

"Donald Trump is most responsible for the cyberattack 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."

People chat as they fill containers and wash with water from a public fountain in Caracas. Many Venezuelans have been deprived of power, water and communications since March 7 when nationwide power outages first hit, abruptly worsening conditions in a nation already struggling with hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. (Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

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."

"We wanted to get them out of the country so that we could move forward in a way that provided that opportunity," Pompeo said.

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 recognized Guaido. Washington's consulate evacuated most of its diplomatic staff two days later.

Underinvestment blamed

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.

Venezuela's electricity network has suffered from years of underinvestment and lack of maintenance. With the economy in a tailspin, spare parts are scarce, while many skilled technical staff have fled the country amid an exodus of more than three million Venezuelans in three years.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, gestures during a session Tuesday of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

The government suspended schools and business activities on Tuesday for two more days, after doing so on Friday and Monday.

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.