Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Venezulean foreign minister detained at New York airport


The Venezulean foreign minister said he was illegally detained for 90 minutes at a New York airport by police, accusing them of treating him abusively and attempting to frisk and handcuff him.

US State Department officials called Saturday's incident regrettable and said they had apologized to Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro. But he said that was not enough.

"We were detained during an hour and a half [and] threatened by police with being beaten," Maduro told reporters at Venezuela's mission to the UN. "We hold the US government responsible," Maduro said.

officials frisked

Maduro said the authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport at one point ordered him and other members of his delegation to spread their arms and legs and be frisked, but they forcefully refused.

"They tried to put on some handcuffs," he said, describing it as a threat. "They would have had to take us out of that airport dead if they tried to touch us."

The incident comes as tensions between the two countries -- strained for several years -- took a particularly confrontational turn last week after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called US President George W. Bush "the devil" during a speech to the UN General Assembly.

Maduro said his passport and ticket were retained for a time, and finally given back to him. But he said the incident prevented him from traveling home on Saturday.

US State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said it was a "regrettable incident" for which "the US government has apologized to Foreign Minister Maduro and the government of Venezuela."

Homeland Security Spokesman Russ Knocke denied that Maduro was mistreated.

"There's no evidence to substantiate any sort of abnormality in the screening process," he said.

secondary screening

US officials said Maduro had been identified for `"secondary screening" -- an added security check that can required for various reasons.

"He began to articulate his frustration with secondary screening right after he went through the magnetometer," Knocke said, referring to the walk-through metal detector.

"Port Authority officials confronted him when the situation became a ruckus," Knocke commented, without providing additional information.

A UN diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Maduro's trip was delayed because he had showed up late without a ticket, prompting the screening.

Maduro told reporters that his government has been in touch with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and that a team of lawyers had been assigned to the case.

Maduro said Venezuela would challenge his detention, calling it "flagrant violation of international law" and his diplomatic immunity.

"We demand a response, justice," said Maduro, adding that he was detained "illegally, abusively" and that those responsible should be punished.

He said the 118 nations of the Nonaligned Movement -- through its president Cuba -- was lodging a protest.

Maduro told CNN en Espanol that one official at a security checkpoint pushed him and yelled, saying he had to go to another room where a strip search would be performed.

When Maduro explained that he was the Venezuelan foreign minister and showed his diplomatic passport, he said the situation only worsened, as more police showed up and began threatening him.

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