(AP Photo/Howard Yanes)
WASHINGTON - The United States on Friday accused three members of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's inner circle of aiding Colombian rebels by supplying arms and helping drug traffickers. Washington also expelled Chavez's ambassador as a diplomatic clash intensified.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the expulsions this week of the American ambassadors to Venezuela and Bolivia. He said the United States would kick out the Venezuelan even though Chavez had announced Thursday night that he was yanking his ambassador.
"This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders," McCormack said of Chavez and the embattled Bolivian president, Evo Morales. He suggested that the expulsion of the U.S. ambassadors was meant to distract attention from the countries' regional and domestic difficulties.
Morales expelled the U.S. envoy to Bolivia on Wednesday, accusing him of inciting violent protests; U.S. officials responded by kicking out Bolivia's ambassador to the United States. Chavez — a close Morales ally — followed suit Thursday, accusing the U.S. of backing a coup plot against him in Venezuela. "Clearly he's worried about his protege," McCormack said of Chavez.
McCormack added: "The charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false — and the leaders of those countries know it."
Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against Hugo Carvajal Barrios and Henry Rangel Silva, both chiefs of Venezuelan intelligence agencies. A former government minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, was also named. The officials have served as Chavez's most trusted security chiefs.
Treasury said Friday that the three aided drug trafficking by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, describing the leftist rebels as a narco-terrorist organization.
U.S. drug czar John Walters has said Venezuela, which suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, is failing to take action against a sharp rise in cocaine smuggling. By U.S. estimates, the flow of Colombian cocaine through Venezuela has quadrupled since 2004, reaching an estimated 282 tons (256 metric tons) last year.
Carvajal helped protect drug shipments passing through Venezuela, Treasury said, and provided the FARC with weapons and official government identification documents to ease travel in and out of Venezuela. Rangel allegedly aided the FARC in its drug trafficking and "pushed for greater cooperation" between the government and the rebels, the U.S. agency said.
It said Rodriguez Chacin was the "main weapons contact for the FARC" within Chavez's government, and that he held "numerous meetings with senior FARC members," including one at Venezuela's presidential palace in late 2007. It said he also tried to "facilitate a $250 million loan from the Venezuelan government to the FARC in late 2007."
Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement that the "designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents."
At the State Department, McCormack said the sanctions had been in the works for some time and are unrelated to the diplomatic dispute.
Several rebel deserters have previously told The Associated Press that the Venezuelan military helped them move drugs and provided the FARC with refuge and medical assistance.
Signs of FARC links to Venezuelan military intelligence chief Gen. Carvajal surfaced earlier this year in documents on laptops that Colombia says were seized from a bombed rebel camp.
In one 2007 message, the rebels' main go-between with the Chavez government said Carvajal would help "get us 20 bazookas."
Chavez has questioned the authenticity of the rebel documents, saying they are being manipulated for political purposes. He also disputes U.S. surveillance data showing a rise in drug trafficking.
Rodriguez Chacin stepped down Monday as justice minister, saying he was leaving for personal reasons but continues to be a "revolutionary" and hopes to serve in another capacity. The specific reasons for his departure have not been explained.
A close ally to Chavez, Rodriguez Chacin was the president's primary contact with the FARC in talks on freeing hostages during the past year, and has for years been Chavez's leading go-between with the rebels.
Critics have accused Rodriguez Chacin of being too close to the rebels, and he was recorded in a video during one hostage release telling guerrillas, "we're paying attention to your fight." The loan he is accused of facilitating also appeared in the purported rebel computer files, but U.S. officials say they cannot confirm whether funds were actually provided to the FARC.
Rangel, head of Venezuela's DISIP intelligence agency, generally keeps a low profile, but his name emerged this week in a Miami courtroom where witnesses are testifying in the trial of a man accused of acting as an illegal foreign agent for Venezuela.
One businessman, Moises Maionica, testified that Rangel was designated by Chavez to oversee attempts to cover up the Venezuelan source of US$800,000 in cash flown into Argentina in a suitcase and seized last year.
Prosecutors allege the money was provided by Venezuela's state oil company for the campaign of Argentina's new president, Cristina Fernandez. Argentina denies it, and Chavez calls the accusations "trash."
Ian James reported from Caracas. Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.