Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced on Thursday that his government had ordered the expulsion of the naval attache at the US embassy in Caracas for spying, further increasing tensions with the Bush administration.
Speaking on the seventh anniversary of his ascension to power, Chavez also warned that he would order the detention and removal of any other US military officials caught spying.
"If accredited military officials continue with the espionage, we will imprison them, we will order them thrown out," Chavez said.
The embassy denied the accusations against the attache, John Correa, and other high-ranking military officers.
"None of the military attaches in Caracas was or is involved in inappropriate activities," Salome Hernandez, a spokeswoman in the embassy, said by phone from Caracas.
Chavez's comments came on the same day that senior Bush administration officials, who have been relatively silent after weeks of constant verbal volleys by the Venezuelan leader, harshly criticized his governing style.
Warning that Chavez is consolidating power at the expense of democracy, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went so far as to compare Chavez to Hitler.
"He's a person who was elected legally just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working with Fidel Castro and Morales and others," Rumsfeld said, referring to the Cuban leader and the new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. "It concerns me."
In testimony on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, said Chavez "appears ready to use his control of the legislature and other institutions to continue to stifle the opposition, to reduce press freedom, and entrench himself through measures that are technically legal, but which nonetheless constrict democracy."
Negroponte also said that Chavez's populist government was seeking closer economic and military ties with Iran and North Korea, while meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring countries.
Little, if anything, has ever been publicly raised about ties to North Korea, and Negroponte did not offer evidence. But Chavez, whose country has the hemisphere's largest oil reserves, has met with Iranian leaders and has vigorously defended Tehran's goal of developing a nuclear program.
The barbs from Washington are sure to infuriate Chavez, an outspoken leftist who at every turn -- in speeches, inaugurations of public works projects, his weekly television show -- warns that the Bush administration is out to assassinate him.
In recent days, Venezuelan officials have claimed that US embassy officials are part of a spy ring involving dissident Venezuelan military officers.
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