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U.S. plane strays into Venezuelan airspace

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  • U.S. says pilot "recognized his error and contacted a Venezuela tower"
  • Venezuela official says U.S. intentionally breached airspace
  • U.S. says it is "happy" to discuss incident with Venezuelan officials
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. anti-drug aircraft strayed into Venezuelan airspace Saturday night, the United States acknowledged Monday, ratcheting up tensions between the two nations.

Ministers Gustavo Rangel Briceno, left, Nicolas Maduro, center, and Gen. Jesus Gonzalez denounce the incursion.

The pilot "recognized his error and contacted a Venezuela tower to acknowledge that," said Tom Casey, spokesman for the U.S. State Department.

He said the pilot realized a "navigation error" had occurred and told the tower "he would immediately return to international airspace."

However, at a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel Briceno said Venezuela believes that the U.S. military intentionally breached the country's airspace, adding that the U.S. ambassador will be summoned to the Foreign Ministry to explain the incident.

"It's likely that this sort of thing has happened before and it wasn't detected or wasn't condemned," Rangel Briceno said. "It's probable, too, that they are testing us, but we should make it clear that these days, we do have the equipment to confront them and to cover all of our airspace."

While acknowledging that the American pilot told air traffic controllers at Venezuela's main Maiquetia airport that he "wasn't aware of his location," Rangel Briceno said that "we believe that that's not the case."

"We believe that this was a conscious action on the part of the United States Navy, that it's no more than another link in the chain of provocations that they want to ensnare our country in," he said.

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Casey said Venezuela had not formally contacted the U.S. Embassy in Caracas about discussing the incident. The U.S., he said, is "happy to speak about this with the Venezuelan government authorities."

Casey called it an "isolated incident" that was "simply an issue where an error was made and acknowledged at the time."

There is no change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela, he said.

The Navy S-3 Viking had taken off from a base in Curacao as part of Joint Interagency Task Force South, which conducts counter-drug operations in South America, a U.S. military official told CNN. The official declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the event.

The official said the plane had been experiencing "intermittent navigation problems." The crew was told by controllers in Curacao to switch frequencies to a control center in Venezuela. At that point, the Venezuelan air controllers accused the Navy crew of flying into their airspace, the official said.

The Navy crew gave all information about its identity and location to the Venezuelans during a three-minute radio call between both sides. The official said the conversation was "polite" but there were some "language barriers."

Tensions between United States and Venezuela have risen in recent years, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accusing the Bush administration of covert activity and strong-arming United Nations members. The United States views Chavez -- who has called President Bush the "devil" -- as a negative force in the region and protested its bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Curacao is an island that is part of the Netherlands Antilles, just off the northern coast of Venezuela.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report

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