August 25, 2006

Venezuela criticizes U.S. over diplomatic bag spat

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela charged on Friday
that the U.S. Embassy had illegally transported goods,
including military hardware, into the country in the latest
dispute to roil relations between Washington and Caracas.

The charge came a day after U.S. officials accused
Venezuelan soldiers of illegally stopping and impounding a
cargo protected by diplomatic protocol as it was transported
from the international airport near Caracas to the embassy.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon countered with
charges U.S. officials had bypassed customs and required
paperwork by transporting 16 packages in violation of
international law.

"They brought in food goods without any health controls,
they brought in armaments without any legal control," Chacon
told reporters. "Everything that doesn't pass through customs
is contraband, we are talking about contraband here."

The minister said only four packages out of 20 were
considered diplomatic baggage covered by international
protocol. He added some of the packages contained parts for
fighter jet ejector seats, explosive charges and even chickens.
The attorney general has said government lawyers were
investigating the case.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman denied military goods were part of
the embassy delivery. But he said U.S.-made aircraft safety
equipment purchased by the Venezuelan military were shipped on
the same C-17 military transport plane as the diplomatic cargo.

"The impounded cargo consisted of household effects of a
U.S. diplomat and a shipment of commissary goods," said State
Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez.

He said the search violated international treaty and
long-established procedures and the State Department had filed
a formal complaint. "We have requested an immediate explanation
of the entire incident."

Venezuela and its chief oil client, the United States,
often spar as President Hugo Chavez promotes his self-styled
socialist revolution as an alternative to U.S. policies and
bolsters ties with U.S. adversaries Cuba and Iran.

Relations deteriorated earlier this year when Washington
and Caracas earlier this year expelled diplomats in a dispute
over charges that a U.S. naval attache was spying.

A former soldier who led a failed coup before his 1998
election, Chavez often accuses Washington of plotting his
downfall. U.S. officials dismiss those charges as rhetoric from
an increasingly authoritarian leader.

(Additional reporting by David Lawder in Washington)