The United States has expelled a senior Venezuelan diplomat in swift retaliation for Caracas sending home an American military attache, escalating a crisis with a major US oil supplier.
"We don't like to get into tit-for-tat games like this with the Venezuelan government, but they initiated this and we were forced to respond," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
The United States expelled Jeny Figueredo, describing her as the ambassador's chief-of-staff, after Caracas did the same to a US Embassy naval official the day before accusing him of espionage.
There were no charges against Figueredo and the two positions are not easily comparable.
But the Venezuelan appears to be a more important figure to the her embassy than the expelled American was to the US mission in Caracas.
While Figueredo, whose title is minister-counselor, had little contact with US government officials, she was key to the running of the embassy, overseeing most personnel issues and providing constant advice to the ambassador.
The Venezuelan Embassy said it had no immediate comment on the decision.
US ties with Venezuela are rapidly deteriorating.
The tensions have sometimes rattled the world's volatile oil markets. But -despite occasional Venezuelan threats- the problems have not affected oil supplies from the world's No. 5 exporter to the superpower's energy-hungry economy.
President Hugo Chavez has galvanized anti-American sentiment across Latin America, opposing US free trade policies and antagonizing Washington with personal attacks on "imperialist" President George W. Bush.
The United States has also stoked tensions.
On Friday, with America complaining increasingly that Venezuela is on a military spending spree, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld alluded to Hitler when criticizing Chavez.
US spy chief John Negroponte also said the former paratrooper was seeking to strengthen military ties with two countries, Iran and North Korea, that Bush included in an "axis of evil" before invading Iraq.
Roger Noriega, who until last year was the top American diplomat for Latin America and is now a political analyst, said the US move was understandable.
"Chavez has provoked a reaction and the United States appears to be giving a reasonable response to the continuing abuse of our mission in Caracas," the longtime Chavez critic said.