CARACAS, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Venezuela ordered out three U.S. diplomats on Monday, accusing them of recruiting students to lead protests that were the OPEC nation's most serious violence since President Nicolas Maduro's April election and in which three people were killed.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the three consular staff had used visa visits to universities as cover for promoting opposition protests by students, adding they had 48 hours to leave the country.
The demonstrations, which have energized the opposition but show few signs they can oust Maduro, continued on Monday with scattered protests in Caracas and various provincial cities.
"They have been visiting universities with the pretext of granting visas," said Jaua, who often faced off against police during his own days as a student demonstrator.
"But that is a cover for making contacts with (student) leaders to offer them training and financing to create youth groups that generate violence," he told reporters.
The U.S. State Department called the allegations "baseless and false," adding that Washington supported free expression and peaceful assembly in Venezuela and around the world.
Venezuela has routinely expelled U.S. diplomats in recent years as the relationship between the two countries frayed during the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Maduro ousted three diplomats in October on charges of stirring up labor protests, and also expelled two earlier in 2013 on the day Chavez died of cancer.
Critics dismiss such moves as theatrics used in times of national commotion to distract from more serious issues.
PROTESTS RUMBLE ON
Student demonstrators have promised to stay in the street until Maduro resigns, though the 51-year-old former bus driver has vowed not to cede even a "millimeter" of power.
He has urged his own supporters to drown out the protests with dance and song in the streets.
The Caracas protests have been limited to mostly upscale areas, and there has been no evidence that Venezuelans could join them en masse or that Maduro could be forced from power.
Small demonstrations early on Monday blocked the main avenues of several affluent neighborhoods of Caracas.
A group of students in Caracas were marching toward the headquarters of the state telecommunications agency, which has come under fire since the government's decision last week to remove a Colombian station from cable television.
Demonstrators in the Andean city of San Cristobal set up protests burning tires and trash in the morning.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, wanted on charges including terrorism in relation to the recent violence, called for students to march with him to the center of Caracas on Tuesday. He said he would then hand himself in.
Citing security problems, the Andean Development Corporation suspended its annual marathon scheduled for this weekend in Caracas.
Venezuela's highly traded global bonds, which fluctuate sharply on civil unrest or political tension, remained near 18-month lows, though trading in U.S. markets was generally light due to the Presidents Day holiday.
Bank of America said in a research note on Monday that the protests were unlikely to result in a change of government, recommending that investors take advantage of attractive yields on bonds that mature in the coming years.
VIOLENCE ON BOTH SIDES
Only 13 students are still detained after nearly 100 arrests in the past week. Complaints about violent acts by both sides have piled up after five consecutive days of confrontations between police and demonstrators.
Opposition activists say some detained student demonstrators have been tortured, while videos and photos circulating online show uniformed men firing on protesters. Maduro insists police have been restrained in the face of provocation and attacks.
The reporters' trade union said 11 journalists have been arrested, some of whom were beaten and had their equipment stolen while covering the unrest.
Venezuelan photographer Gabriel Osorio said that on Saturday, troops hit him in the head with a pistol, shot him with rubber bullets and broke one of his ribs.
"I was working, I wasn't throwing rocks," Osorio told a local newspaper. "I yelled 'I'm with the press,' but that actually seemed to be what triggered their attack."
Government leaders have denounced violence by demonstrators linked to opposition marches, including vandalizing of buildings and burning of trash along city avenues.
Hooded protesters have gathered outside the headquarters of state TV channel VTV for the past few nights, lighting fires in the streets and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
"If anyone thinks they're going to halt the activities of (state TV), they're sorely mistaken," said the channel's president, Yuri Pimentel.