United States, Venezuela engage in war of words

BOGOTA, Colombia — The United States accused three top aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of helping Colombian guerrillas traffic cocaine and topple the Colombian government, the first time the Bush administration has publicly outlined what it calls tight links between a terrorist group and the highest echelon of Venezuela's leftist government.

The condemnation came in the form of a designation by the Treasury Department that accused former Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin and two leading intelligence officials of helping the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia procure weapons and weaken Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed government. The United States and Europe have blacklisted the FARC, as the rebel group is known, as a terrorist organization, and it is widely reviled in this country for carrying out mass kidnappings and assassinations.

"Today's designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents," Adam Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement Friday.

Under the designation, any property the three Venezuelans own in the United States would be frozen and any American doing business with them could face criminal penalties.

But more significantly, the designation underscores how the Bush administration is prepared to escalate an ongoing conflict with Chavez, a populist who, critics say, has spent billions of dollars to help allies and radical leftist groups across Latin America. The American announcement came a day after Chavez ordered U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy to leave the country in 72 hours in an act of solidarity with his close ally in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, who on Wednesday expelled the American ambassador in La Paz.

Both South American leaders, among a five-nation bloc including Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador that are opposed to many American policies, say that the Bush administration is trying to foment unrest, topple them from power and take over their countries' natural resources.

The United States has in the past simply denied the accusations. This time, Washington upped the ante in a way that will surely lead Chavez to retaliate. On Thursday, Chavez had warned that his country could cut oil supplies to the United States — although American officials doubt that Venezuela, dependent on oil sales, would ever follow through.

American officials said that Rodriguez Chacin, who resigned Monday from the Interior Ministry for what he said were personal reasons, was the Venezuelan government's main weapons point man for the FARC, facilitating the sale of arms to the rebels. The head of Venezuela's Military Intelligence Directorate, Hugo Carvajal, protected drug shipments from seizure by honest Venezuelan authorities and provided weaponry, the Treasury Department said. American officials also said that Carvajal provided FARC members with identification documents that allowed them to travel inside of Venezuela.

Henry de Jesus Silva, director of Venezuela's Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, or DISIP, is accused of assisting the FARC in drug trafficking and advocating closer ties between the Venezuelan state and the rebel group.

American officials, speaking to reporters on condition that their names not be used, said that much of the case built against the Venezuelans came from the computer hard drives recovered by Colombian commandos after that country's air force bombed a rebel camp inside of Ecuador in March. The hard drives belonged to a rebel commander, Raul Reyes, who was killed.

"What has been striking for us about how President Chavez has managed the relationship is that he has developed a small coterie of officials who have gone beyond traditional corruption and sought to build a political and strategic relationship with the FARC," one senior Bush administration official said. He said that relationship was designed both to attack Colombia, which Chavez views as an obstacle to his international ambitions of building a leftist alliance in South America, and to burnish Chavez's image.

In May, Colombian officials provided The Washington Post with documents showing how Venezuelan officials appeared to have provided light arms, thousands of rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades to the FARC. They said that Venezuela also offered to help the FARC obtain surface-to-air missiles but there was no evidence the guerrillas obtained such weapons. Interpol, the international police agency, also studied the Reyes computer hard drives and found that the files containing the incriminating evidence had not been modified or falsified.

American officials said that aside from the three Chavez aides denounced Friday, they know about other officials close to the Venezuelan leader who have helped the FARC.

"It's actually a fairly small group of people, but it's larger than three," said the senior American official. "We know who those people are, and we're watching them very closely."

Tensions in the Andes have been high all week, as protesters in Bolivia sacked buildings and damaged natural gas installations in a direct threat to Morales's government. Chavez says he sees the protests as being engineered from Washington and has promised to send military forces to Bolivia should Morales be toppled.

Speaking to a throng of supporters on Thursday, Chavez said, "Go to hell, Yankees," and announced that he was withdrawing his ambassador from Washington until a new government is in power.

Relations have been particularly strained in recent days as U.S. officials have accused Venezuela of falling far short in the war on drugs in the Andes. U.S. and Colombian authorities say an increasing amount of cocaine is funneled through Venezuela, often with Venezuelan officials participating in the trafficking. Venezuelan officials angrily deny the charges.

Chavez on Thursday also said that the United States was behind a plot to assassinate him, and his government announced a reduction in flights from the United States on American carriers. That decision was made in retaliation after U.S. officials issued warnings about the safety of Venezuelan airports.

This week, Chavez also relished the arrival of two Russian strategic bombers in Venezuela. The Tu-160 bombers, which Russian officials said are not carrying live weapons, are flying training missions over the Caribbean until Monday, when they will return to Russia.

Although NATO fighters escorted the bombers on their long flight to Venezuela, U.S. officials have said they are closely monitoring the exercises.

Chavez said the arrival of the bombers counters Washington's influence in the region and puts the United States "on notice." The training exercises come after Moscow showed its displeasure with the Bush administration for sending warships to provide assistance to Georgia, which last month lost a short war with Russia.

On Wednesday, Chavez said he wanted to fly "one of those beasts" past Cuba and greet his friend and mentor, former Cuban president Fidel Castro. Pavel Androsov, head of the Russian air force's long-distance command, told Interfax that Chavez's request would be considered.

"If they ask us, then fine, if they give us such an order, we will safely transport him and show him the Caribbean from above," Androsov said.

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