After Maduro warning, US pulls non-emergency staff, families from embassy in Venezuela

The US is keeping some diplomats in Caracas as tensions rise with Pres. Maduro.

January 24, 2019, 6:17 PM

The U.S. started withdrawing non-emergency personnel and their families from the American embassy in Venezuela Thursday, just two days after President Nicolás Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomats to leave in 72 hours.

The Trump administration had said it would not abide by Maduro's "meaningless" order, calling him the "former" president after recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.

"The regime of former president Nicolás Maduro is illegitimate... We therefore consider all of its declarations and actions illegitimate and invalid," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday.

PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows his ballot after casting a vote for a constitutional assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows his ballot after casting a vote for a constitutional assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017.

But the drawdown of staff comes amid fears that diplomats and their families were in danger.

President Trump recognized Guaidó, the president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the acting president in a statement on Wednesday, joined by a dozen other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Maduro has been heavily criticized by the U.S. and others for consolidating power, cracking down on political opposition, and overseeing Venezuela's sharp economic decline, marked by food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation.

The socialist leader responded by severing diplomatic ties with the U.S., ordering American diplomats out, and announcing Thursday that he would pull his own diplomats from the U.S. and close the Venezuelan embassy and consulates.

PHOTO: The U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.
The U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.
Howard Yanes/AP, FILE

The initial American response was to dismiss Maduro outright, and Pompeo warned in a statement Wednesday that the U.S. "will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel."

But Maduro still controls the military and security forces in the country, and while Pompeo called on them to respect a "peaceful, democratic transition" to Guaidó's government, the Armed Forces reiterate their allegiance to him on Thursday.

Some American staff will remain in Caracas, although it was unclear how many.

The U.S. Embassy had between 100 and 150 personnel, with family members accompanying diplomats, too. Those families will now be pulled out, after staff were asked to keep their children home from school on Thursday and restrict their movements to certain neighborhoods.

The State Department has set up a task force to manage the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, an official told ABC News, with staff "monitoring the security situation in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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