Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido is under investigation for alleged sabotage of the country’s power grid, the chief prosecutor has said.
It came as the government sought to pressure an adversary who blames corruption and mismanagement for nearly a week of national blackouts.
The announcement by attorney general Tarek William Saab escalated the confrontation between the government and Mr Guaido even as the US, a key backer of the opposition leader, said it was withdrawing its last diplomats in Caracas.
The US has dismissed Venezuelan government accusations that it triggered the power crisis with a cyber attack.
Mr Guaido is already under investigation for alleged instigation of violence, but authorities have not tried to detain the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly since he violated a travel ban and then returned a week ago from a tour of Latin American countries.
Mr Saab said the case against Mr Guaido also involves messages allegedly inciting people to robbery and looting during power outages.
Information minister Jorge Rodriguez appeared on national television to condemn “Guaido and his gang” for their alleged attempt to cut the power as a way of fomenting chaos and toppling President Nicolas Maduro.
Mr Rodriguez said the power grid had been almost completely restored and water service was also returning. More neighbourhoods of Caracas had power on Tuesday morning, but anecdotal reports indicated continuing outages for many Venezuelans, who were already suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
On Tuesday, long queues converged at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water in bottles because water pumps have been failing during the power outages.
Venezuelans usually use debit cards to pay for food and other necessities since hyperinflation has rendered the national currency, the bolivar, nearly worthless, but the cards have not worked because of the blackouts, forcing people to scrounge for scarce cash and search for the few shops that were open.
Schools and many businesses remained closed on Tuesday, and there were widespread reports of looting in the city of Maracaibo.
Adding to tension over Venezuela’s fate, the last US diplomats in Venezuela prepared to head home as relations between Washington and Mr Maduro deteriorated further.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the US, which recognises Mr Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, was withdrawing the remaining diplomats because their continued presence in Caracas had become a “constraint” on US policy as it campaigns to oust Mr Maduro.
“We made the decision yesterday that it just was prudent to get these folks back,” Mr Pompeo added on Tuesday.
“The situation there is deteriorating. The Maduro regime’s horrific leadership over the last years has just made life there so difficult, it began to make it more difficult for the United States to take the actions that it needed to do to support the Venezuelan people. So we concluded this was simply the right step to take and this was the right time to take it.”
The Venezuelan government early on Tuesday disputed Mr Pompeo’s account, saying it had instructed the diplomats to leave within 72 hours.
Their presence “entails risks for the peace, integrity and stability of the country”, foreign minister Jorge Arreaza said.
“These are the same officials that have systematically lied to the world about Venezuela’s reality and personally have directed fake, flag-waving operations to justify an intervention,” he said.
US President Donald Trump has said “all options are on the table” in his administration’s support for Mr Guaido, who says Mr Maduro is an illegitimate leader and must resign so Venezuela can hold elections. Mr Maduro accuses Mr Guaido and the US of plotting an invasion.
The government cut ties with the US in January over its recognition of Mr Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader. US officials said Mr Maduro had no authority to take such a step.
Venezuela later retreated and allowed a skeleton staff to remain at the hilltop US embassy in Caracas as the two countries attempted to negotiate an agreement to allow some sort of representation.