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US orders withdrawal of diplomatic personnel in Venezuela

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo addresses the media and takes questions following the UN Security Council meeting on Iran. at the United Nations, in New York City on December 12, 2018. (Ron Przysucha/State Department)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. diplomatic personnel from Venezuela, hours after Washington imposed sanctions on a Russian bank over its dealings with Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.

The U.S. moves on March 11 turned up the pressure on both Caracas and Moscow, which is one of the biggest financial backers for Venezuela’s embattled leader, Nicolas Maduro.

“Like the January 24 decision to withdraw all dependents and reduce embassy staff to a minimum, this decision reflects the deteriorating situation in Venezuela as well as the conclusion that the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy,” Pompeo said in a statement issued by the State Department.

President Donald Trump’s administration has declared Maduro to be an illegitimate leader, and has backed opposition leader Juan Guaido to replace him.

Prior to Pompeo’s announcement, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against Evrofinance Mosnarbank, saying the bank’s net assets had grown by over 50 percent during 2018, even as U.S. sanctions had increased.

“This action demonstrates that the United States will take action against foreign financial institutions that sustain the illegitimate Maduro regime and contribute to the economic collapse and humanitarian crisis plaguing the people of Venezuela,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

Founded in 2011, the Moscow-based bank is jointly owned by a group of Russian banks and Venezuela’s National Development Fund.

Evrofinance Mosnarbank said in a statement on its website that it was operating in a “stable manner” and will “fulfill all of its obligations towards clients and partners.”

In comments to reporters, Pompeo accused Rosneft of buying oil from Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA).

“Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft, continues to purchase crude oil cargoes from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, in defiance of U.S. sanctions. And Rosneft’s CEO, Igor Sechin, continues to throw a lifeline to the regime,” Pompeo said.

Separately, U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton issued a warning to international banks and financial institutions.

Gazprombank, which is Russia’s third-biggest lender and includes among its shareholders Russian state gas company Gazprom, said the U.S. Treasury decision would not affect it.

“Gazprombank has a minority stake in Evrofinance Mosnarbank,” it said. “Gazprombank does not carry out operations on the accounts of companies that are sanctioned by the U.S. over Venezuela.”

The United States and more than 50 governments recognize Guaido as interim president of the country. They say Maduro wasn’t legitimately re-elected last year because opposition candidates weren’t permitted to run.