Chavez reveals US ‘operation’

Published February 4, 2006

WASHINGTON, Feb 3: The United States expelled a senior Venezuelan diplomat on Friday in a swift tit-for-tat move against President Hugo Chavez, who has an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the superpower.

Mr Chavez accused the expelled US official of buying information on the Venezuelan armed forces and of setting the stage for a ‘Panama-type operation’. to capture him.

US forces invaded Panama in 1989 to arrest strongman Manuel Noriega and try him in Miami on drug charges.

“If they think about coming to get me, then come, we are waiting for you,” Mr Chavez said.

The United States targeted for expulsion Jeny Figueredo, describing her as the Venezuelan ambassador’s chief-of-staff, after Caracas did the same to a US embassy naval attache the day before.

“We don’t like to do tit-for-tat but the Venezuelans initiated it,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

While Jeny Figueredo, whose title is minister-counsellor, had little contact with US government officials, she was key to the running of the embassy in Washington, overseeing most personnel issues and providing constant advice to the ambassador.

On Thursday, Venezuela expelled the US navy attache in Caracas, Commander John Correa. The US government denied that the diplomat had been involved in espionage.

“John Correa has to leave the country immediately,” President Chavez, a virulent critic of the United States, said in a speech at a Caracas theatre to mark the seventh anniversary of his coming to power.

“We have decided, in diplomatic terms, to declare him persona non grata, in plain Spanish that means to throw out of the country an officer at the US military mission for spying,” Mr Chavez said.

The socialist president added that if other military attaches were caught spying they could be detained.

Mr Correa’s whereabouts were unclear. In Washington, a Defence Department spokesman, Lt Col Mark Ballesteros, said the official ‘has been rotated back to the US mainland for further duties as assigned’.

The US State Department denied that the attache had been involved in spying.

“This expulsion is not justified. None of the military attaches at the US embassy in Caracas was or is involved in inappropriate activities,” said Julie Reside, a State Department spokeswoman.

“No decision has been made on whether to respond to this action,” she added.

The US embassy in Venezuela received a letter on Monday outlining espionage accusations against the attache.—AFP

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