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Venezuelan official hints at possible U.S. attack

State Department calls allegation 'ridiculous and untrue'


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A top Venezuelan official said Wednesday "insidious accusations" that President Hugo Chavez is "a negative influence and a destabilizing force for the region" could portend an attack against the country, a major oil exporter.

Accusations that Venezuela has ties to terrorist organizations and limits free speech have intensified, Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said in a speech at an Organization of American States meeting.

He did not name the United States specifically but left no doubt that the Bush administration was the source of his concern.

The "absurdity" of such accusations would not cause concern were it not for other examples that have shown, "when such signs occur, it is because, sooner rather than later, the attack will come," he said.

"That's how it occurred with the encouragement of the coup d'etat in April 2002," he said, referring to a short-lived coup attempt that Washington did not condemn.

Chavez himself led a 1992 coup attempt before being elected president.

Rodriguez also cited the 1973 ousting of democratically elected President Salvador Allende in an allegedly U.S.-backed coup and mentioned the Dominican Republic, Guatemala "and countless others" as reasons for Venezuelan officials to take seriously their intelligence reports "that show plans to liquidate physically our president."

He added, "We are obliged to alert world public opinion about the consequences that an act of this nature could create."

He did not specify what those consequences might be.

Rodriguez said Venezuela wants peace, and had only one enemy: poverty.

"We extend our hand in friendship since we know that peace, based on mutual respect, is the best path toward achieving prosperity," he said.

State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that he hadn't heard the foreign minister's speech, but that the United States had heard similar charges from Chavez himself.

On Tuesday, Boucher called those allegations "ridiculous and untrue."

"The idea that we were out to get the president of Venezuela is just plain wrong," Boucher said.

"Unfortunately, in addition to these wild charges and ridiculous statements that we've seen, we haven't seen any concrete progress on reversing the negative trends," Boucher said.

Relations between the United States and the leftist leader have soured in recent years. U.S. officials have expressed concern over Chavez's policies, his friendship with Cuban President Fidel Castro and his crackdown on the news media, whose owners have largely opposed his rule.

This month, a State Department official also expressed concern over Russia's arms sales to Venezuela, and fears the weapons could wind up in the hands of rebel groups in neighboring Colombia.

The discord between Washington and Caracas has grown since President Bush began his second term.

During hearings before her confirmation as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice singled out the country, saying "there are unhelpful and unconstructive trends going on in Venezuelan policies."

"We do have to be vigilant and to demonstrate that we know the difficulties that that government is causing for its neighbors," Rice added. "Those relationships are deeply concerning to us and to me. And we are very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way."

CNN's Elise Labott and Juan Carlos Lopez contributed to this report.


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