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CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb 25, 2021 (Reuters) – Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Wednesday that the head of the European Union’s delegation in Caracas had 72 hours to leave the South American country and declared her persona non grata after the bloc imposed new sanctions on Venezuelan officials this week.

In announcing the action against Portuguese national Isabel Brilhante, Arreaza described the sanctions against 19 Venezuelan officials as “truly unacceptable.”

The sanctions were a response to legislative elections won by President Nicolas Maduro’s allies that Venezuela’s opposition and many Western democracies deemed fraudulent.

“We are doing this because the circumstances demand it,” Arreaza said.

Two EU diplomats said the move was unwelcome but will not change the bloc’s policy, end sanctions, or derail efforts to mediate a way toward new “free and fair” presidential elections in the country.

“The EU profoundly regrets this decision, which will only lead to further international isolation of Venezuela. We call for this decision to be reversed,” said Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Shortly after announcing the expulsion, Arreaza said in another statement that he had delivered protest notes to diplomats from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain, which he said were the four governments that had “acted with the greatest, let’s say, malicious intent, to promote new attacks,” referring to the latest round of sanctions.

“We have made every effort (…) to stabilize democratic coexistence in the country and once again sanctions, in quotation marks, against magistrates, against the judiciary,” the foreign minister said in a statement on state television.

Arreaza added that Maduro had been “generous” to allow the European missions to remain in Venezuela after they refused to recognize him as head of state in 2019, after a presidential re-election in 2018 was deemed fraudulent by most Western nations.

Venezuela in 2020 walked back a pledge to throw out the EU’s representative in the crisis-stricken OPEC nation, a move it had taken in response to a previous round of sanctions.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas in Caracas Writing by Sarah Kinosian and Luc Cohen Editing by Alistair Bell and Matthew Lewis)

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