February 2, 2006

Chavez expels US military official accused of spying

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez said on Thursday he was expelling a U.S. Embassy
military official who authorities have accused of spying with a
group of Venezuelan military officers.

The diplomatic expulsion worsens already rocky relations
between the United States and Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil
exporter and a top supplier of crude to the U.S. market.

"We have decided to declare persona non grata or as we say
here, to throw out of the country, a military officer in the
U.S. mission because of espionage," Chavez said during a
ceremony to celebrate seven years in power.

"We have declared persona non grata U.S. naval Capt. John
Correa, who must leave the country immediately," he said.

He said the full U.S. embassy military mission would be
expelled from Venezuela if authorities caught any of its
officers spying.

U.S. officials rejected the espionage charges.

"We will respond through diplomatic channels," U.S. State
Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said, referring to a January
30 letter the United States received regarding Correa.

"None of the U.S. attaches was or is engaged in
inappropriate activities," the official said.

Chavez, an staunch ally of Cuba, has become a voice for
regional opposition to U.S. free-market policies and has often
accused Washington of trying to overthrow him since he survived
a brief coup in April 2002.

U.S. officials reject his charges and say the leftist
leader has become an authoritarian at home and a threat to
regional stability by using Venezuela's oil wealth to meddle in
the political affairs of his South American neighbors.

Venezuelan authorities said last week they had
"confidential evidence" that U.S. Embassy staff were involved
with a group of Venezuelan military officers accused of passing
state secrets to the U.S. Defense Department.