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Monday, January 30, 2006

Chávez's No. 2: We can prove U.S. spied

Miami Herald: Venezuela's vice president pointed a finger squarely at U.S. Embassy officials in an escalating espionage scandal.

CARACAS - Venezuela has ''confidential information'' proving that U.S. Embassy officials took part in a spy ring involving active and retired Venezuelan naval officers, Vice President José Vicente Rangel said Friday.

Rangel's comments are likely to increase tensions between Washington and Caracas over a case that has captivated public attention here since last weekend, when five officers and one civilian were accused of espionage following a raid on a house in Caracas by officers from naval intelligence. They removed computers, CDs and diskettes.

The house belongs to dentist Jacinto Nouel, 66, the father-in-law of Lt. Cmdr. (ret.) José Ignacio Plaza. Nouel was arrested, and has since been accused of spying, along with five naval officers who have not been officially named.

Plaza, who is not among the five, lives in the United States. He resigned from the navy a year ago, after accusing two rear-admirals of corruption.

''His accusations were dismissed, and the navy began an investigation of him,'' his lawyer, Alonso Medina Roa, told The Miami Herald. ``There was even an attempt on his life.''

The government-funded TV channel Telesur claimed Thursday, citing intelligence sources, that U.S. naval attaché John Correa was the recipient of classified information supplied by the alleged spies.

Although there has been no official confirmation of the nature of the documents allegedly passed on, Medina said the material confiscated from Nouel was publicly available information about military aircraft that Spain was to supply to the Venezuelan navy.

The $600 million deal was placed in doubt this month after Washington placed a ban on the supply to Venezuela of components in the aircraft that originated in the United States.

Plaza took a military course in the United States several years ago, and, ''has relationships with a number of U.S. naval officers, as one would expect,'' Medina said. He said he was aware of no relationship with the naval attaché.

U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said Thursday that he had ''absolute confidence'' in the embassy staff.

An embassy spokesman told The Miami Herald that there had been no official communication from the Venezuelan authorities about the alleged spying case.

Venezuelan authorities, however, have publicly linked the allegations to what they see as an ongoing campaign by Washington to destabilize the leftist populist government of President Hugo Chávez.

Gen. Melvin López Hidalgo, inspector general of the armed forces, said Thursday that the case was ''yet another instance of interference in the internal affairs'' of Venezuela.

Rangel, the Venezuelan vice president, said he was not surprised by the case.

''The U.S. [diplomatic] mission was totally involved in the 11 April coup,'' he told journalists, referring to an abortive attempt in 2002 to overthrow Chávez, who was restored to power after 48 hours. Rangel was defense minister at the time.

The United States, which has denied involvement in the coup attempt, initially welcomed the change of government. Chávez has since accused the Bush administration of involvement in plans to assassinate him and invade Venezuela.

U.S. officials have ridiculed the accusations, and Chávez has never produced substantive evidence.

However, the Venezuelan government has taken steps in the past 18 months to reduce to a minimum the military contacts between the two nations.

Chávez has supervised a top-to-bottom revision of Venezuelan military doctrine, placing the emphasis on a ''war of all the people'' against a potential ''imperialist'' invader.

He also has ordered the purchase of large amounts of new military equipment, including 100,000 Russian Kalashnikov rifles, Russian helicopters, and ships and aircraft from Spain and Brazil. The U.S. government has expressed concern about what it considers an unwarranted military buildup.
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