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13/01/2010 | Venezuela - Pentagon calls Chavez U.S. plot talk ¨diversion¨

Reuters Staff

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is making "baseless" accusations of a U.S. military plot to distract Venezuelans from real troubles at home, such as a currency devaluation, a top Pentagon official told Reuters.

 

Chavez, who on Friday announced a devaluation that could fan inflation, said the same day he had scrambled two F-16 jets to intercept a U.S. military plane that twice entered Venezuelan skies, "provoking us."

Frank Mora, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the "baseless" and "unfounded" accusations -- which the United States had immediately denied -- were part of a pattern by Chavez.

"The more that President Chavez is confronted with domestic challenges, the more his rhetoric heats up," Mora said in an interview from his Pentagon office on Monday.

Mora said he found it "interesting that he made this unfounded accusation ... at the same time he was announcing a major currency devaluation," adding repeated devaluations can lead to a potential scarcity of goods.

"It is, in my view, a diversion of attention away from a particularly domestic challenge -- and trying to scapegoat the issue by once again accusing the United States government."

The Venezuelan government delivered a formal letter of protest to U.S. diplomats in Caracas on Monday over the incursion, Venezuela's foreign minister said.

Venezuela's vice president, who is also the defense minister, told local television the government had given U.S. officials radar coordinates and recorded conversations of the alleged incident.

Chavez, Latin America's most outspoken U.S. critic, has made a perceived threat of U.S. intervention a central element of his political discourse and a rallying cry for supporters.

He accused the Netherlands in December of abetting a potential U.S. offensive action against his government by granting U.S. troops access to its islands close to Venezuela.

Chavez has also raised eyebrows in Western capitals by announcing last year that Iran was helping his country explore for uranium.

"We monitor, we remain vigilant to these kinds of things," Mora said.

"TRAP" FOR COLOMBIA

Mora acknowledged recent tensions between Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, a close U.S. ally, which have hurt trade and raised fears of border violence.

But he praised the Colombian government for "not falling into that trap, which I think Chavez wants."

Chavez on November 8 told Venezuelan troops to be ready for a possible war with Colombia. Colombia's defense minister said last month that Bogota was preparing to defend against a possible foreign military attack.

Still, Mora said Colombia's focus was on defeating Marxist FARC rebels and not a potential external conflict.

"The Colombian government has not responded by mobilizing to the Colombian border. Because it's clear that these are simply provocations by the Venezuelan government," he said.

"Are they concerned? Certainly they're concerned. But ... the equipment that they're buying is still very much focused on what is the number one threat in Colombia -- which is the (FARC) insurgency and narcotics," Mora said.

"They are not buying new fighter aircraft for example or tanks to this point."

Chavez says pilotless drone aircraft are flying out of Colombia to spy on him and describes an agreement allowing U.S. troops more access to Colombian bases as part of a plot to invade Venezuela, South America's top oil-exporting nation.

Mora estimated that there were roughly just 200 to 250 U.S. troops in Colombia under that agreement.

"That's not expected to change; if anything it's expected to decline," he said.

Mora said Venezuela was not doing enough to police its border from incursions by the FARC, but applauded improved sharing of information between Ecuador and Colombia on their border region.

"On the Venezuelan side of the border, that border is not monitored. There is not sometimes a state presence," he said.

**Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero in Caracas; Editing by Eric Walsh

Reuters (Estados Unidos)

 


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