Ecuador expels Venezuela ambassador after official says Moreno lied

Venezuela's Communications and Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - Ecuador expelled Venezuela’s ambassador to Quito on Thursday after a Venezuelan government minister called Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno a liar, and Venezuela reciprocated by ordering Ecuador’s top diplomat to go home.

In a Wednesday press conference, Venezuelan Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said Moreno was a “liar” and accused him of exaggerating in a speech at the United Nations the number of Venezuelan migrants arriving in Ecuador.

Saying the comments were offensive, Ecuador expelled the Venezuelan ambassador and called its charge d’affaires at its embassy in Caracas back for consultations, its foreign ministry said in a statement.

Venezuela later declared the charge d’affaires, Elizabeth Méndez, persona non grata and gave her 72 hours to leave the country in what its foreign ministry described as a “reciprocal measure,” according to a statement read on state television.

Ecuador’s highest representative in Venezuela has been the charge. The ambassador position has been vacant for more than a year because of diplomatic disputes.

As many as 1.9 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015, according to the United Nations, fleeing an economic crisis that has resulted in shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods. That flow has overwhelmed other countries in the region, including Ecuador.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has said no more than 600,000 Venezuelans left in the past two years, and state television gives daily coverage to a government program offering migrants free flights back to Venezuela.

Reporting by Javier López de Lérida; additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas; writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman