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story.lead_photo.caption Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido leaps onto a vehicle Tuesday in Caracas to address supporters, one of several appearances he made at protests around the Venezuelan capital.

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan officials reported blackouts easing in some areas Tuesday, while the chief prosecutor said opposition leader Juan Guaido is being investigated in the alleged sabotaging of the national power grid, which collapsed last week.

The announcement by Tarek William Saab, the attorney general, escalated the socialist government's standoff with Guaido, although there are questions about how aggressively authorities would move against a man who is staunchly supported by the United States as well as many Venezuelans.

Guaido, who is trying to oust President Nicolas Maduro and hold elections, blames corruption and incompetence for nearly a week of nationwide blackouts that deprived most of the already struggling population not just of electricity, but also water and communications.

Adding to tension over Venezuela's fate, the United States said it was withdrawing its last diplomats still in Caracas. The U.S. State Department also said U.S. citizens residing or traveling in Venezuela should leave the country, a heightening of an advisory issued Jan. 29 that said they should "strongly consider" doing so.

"Bye-bye," Maduro said on national television after praising the professional conduct of James Story, the top-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy. Maduro also said he would seek the help of allies Cuba, Russia, China and Iran in investigating his allegation that a U.S. "cyberattack" targeted Venezuelan power facilities, which he claimed was launched from Houston and Chicago.

The U.S. has dismissed the Venezuelan government's accusation as an attempt to divert attention from its own chronic failings.

Venezuelan's information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, said the power grid had been almost completely restored and that water service was also returning. However, anecdotal reports indicated continuing power failures for many Venezuelans, who were already suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

On Tuesday, long lines of people converged again at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water in bottles because water pumps have been out of service without power.

Even some relatives of Maduro couldn't stand the power failures, according to authorities in Colombia.

The leader's cousin, Argimiro Maduro, along with his spouse, children and extended relatives, tried to enter the neighboring country, seeking relief until power is restored in Venezuela, said Christian Kruger, Colombia's migration director.

Permission was denied. Colombia, which recognizes Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, will not allow Maduro's relatives to vacation while "avoiding the reality of a people in agony," Kruger said.

One of the areas hit hardest by the power cuts that started Thursday evening is the city of Maracaibo, where widespread looting has occurred since Sunday. Hundreds of people looted nearly half the 270 shops in Maracaibo's Sambil mall, said Juan Carlos Koch, the mall's general manager.

Saab, the chief prosecutor, said the case against Guaido also involves alleged messages inciting people to rob and loot during power failures.

Guaido is already under investigation after being accused of instigating violence, but authorities have not tried to detain him since he violated a ban on leaving the country and then returned a week ago from a Latin American tour. He said at a Caracas demonstration Tuesday that allegations that he sabotaged the power grid are false.

"The whole world knows who the saboteur is. Maduro is responsible," said Guaido, who has accused the government of negligence and looting state resources for years.

Authorities also detained a Venezuelan journalist and activist and confiscated computers and cellphones from his home, human-rights activists said. The arrest of Luis Carlos Diaz after he left Union Radio station Monday followed an accusation by a pro-government leader that he caused Venezuela's blackouts, Human Rights Watch said.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N high commissioner for human rights, said that she is concerned about Diaz and that a U.N. mission visiting Caracas asked authorities for access to him.

U.S. DIPLOMATS

News of the withdrawal of the last U.S. diplomats came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted late Monday that the continued presence of the envoys in Caracas had become a "constraint" on U.S. policy. He did not elaborate.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said "all options are on the table" in his administration's support for Guaido. Maduro accuses Guaido and the United States of plotting an invasion.

The Venezuelan government disputed Pompeo's account, saying it had instructed the U.S. diplomats to leave.

In a statement, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said it was concerned the White House would use "protecting its diplomatic personnel" as a "pretext" for armed action. Venezuela, the statement said, was ready "to maintain channels of communication" if relations were respectful.

Analysts said the departure of the U.S. diplomats could make it more difficult for Washington to be in touch with opposition leaders.

"Now the U.S. will not be present, so its ability to collect information directly and play an active role in Venezuela will be very limited," said Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan international affairs expert.

However, he said, the withdrawal of the embassy personnel could pave the way for Washington to take tougher actions, without having to worry about retaliation against its diplomats. As Venezuela tries to find new markets for its oil, the U.S. government is using the threat of sanctions to discourage other countries from purchasing the petroleum.

Pompeo said in an interview with KTRH radio's Houston's Morning News program that the decision reflected concerns about the diplomats' safety.

"Their security is always paramount," he said. "And it's just gotten very difficult."

Although U.S.-Venezuela ties have been strained for years, they began unraveling rapidly in January, when the Trump administration called for Maduro to resign and recognized Guaido as the country's leader, citing what it called a fraudulent election last year. At least 50 other countries have done the same.

In response to the U.S. actions, Maduro ordered the expulsion of U.S. diplomats.

The United States in January also slapped strong sanctions on Venezuela's pivotal oil sector, effectively cutting off the nation's single largest source of hard currency.

A temporary agreement allowed a small number of diplomatic personnel to remain in each nations' capitals as Washington and Caracas sought to establish more limited interest sections.

That agreement expired Monday. U.S. staff members are expected to leave by Friday.

A skeleton staff of about 20 diplomatic personnel -- assisted by local employees -- has been manning the sprawling U.S. Embassy complex in Caracas. But even running an embassy has become difficult in Venezuela. Hotels, diplomatic facilities and some restaurants have continued to run on generators, but those require diesel -- which is also increasingly difficult to obtain.

Information for this article was contributed by Christopher Torchia, Sheyla Urdaneta and Christine Armario of The Associated Press; and by Mary Beth Sheridan, Anthony Faiola, Andreina Aponte, Rachelle Krygier, Karen DeYoung and Paul Schemm of The Washington Post.

Photo by AP/SCHNEYDER MENDOZA
People cross a makeshift bridge from Venezuela into Colombia on Tuesday. Colombia has denied entry to relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who are seeking relief from the lack of electricity. A Colombian official said the country will not allow Maduro’s relatives to vacation while “avoiding the reality of a people in agony.”

A Section on 03/13/2019

Print Headline: Venezuelan investigated in blackouts

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