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Mexico, Venezuela pull ambassadors in dispute

Mexican President Fox speaks during TV interview at Presidential Residence Los Pinos in Mexico City
Mexican President Vicente Fox, seen Monday, demanded an apology from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez after a dispute involving a U.S. proposal for regional free trade. Arielgutierrez / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mexico recalled its ambassador from Venezuela on Monday after Caracas said it would withdraw its top diplomat instead of apologizing after President Hugo Chavez warned Mexican leader Vicente Fox: “Don’t mess with me, sir, because you’ll get stung.”

Fox said in a television interview that he would meet with Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez to decide what to do next.

Tensions between Fox and Chavez spilled over after this month’s Summit of the Americas in Argentina, where Fox defended a U.S.-backed proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas while Chavez proclaimed the idea dead.

In the interview with CNN en Espanol, Fox promised to keep the debate with Chavez from becoming personal but added “we can’t allow people to offend our country.”

Mexico said earlier Monday that it would kick out Venezuelan ambassador Vladimir Villegas and recall its own ambassador to that country at midnight unless Chavez’s government apologized for the remarks.

But in a news conference Monday in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Foreign Secretary Ali Rodriguez said his country would not accept Mexico’s demands and considered the ultimatum “unjustified.”

“The immediate return of ambassador Vladimir Villegas has been ordered,” Rodriguez said, adding that a charge-d’affaires would be in charge of the embassy. “This situation is entirely the responsibility of President Fox.”

Fox responded by saying he was going to continue to fight for free trade — the topic that sparked the dispute between the two leaders.

Mexico, Venezuela still have business relations
Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar stressed that withdrawing ambassadors wouldn’t mean severing ties completely with Venezuela because business and cultural relations would remain intact.

Chavez, who is a close ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and a sharp critic of President Bush, had accused Fox of attacking him and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who hosted the summit.

The Venezuelan leader also accused Fox of violating summit protocol in trying to press for an agreement on the free trade zone when that wasn’t on the agenda.

“President Fox left bleeding from his wound,” Chavez said Sunday, echoing remarks last week in which he accused Fox of being a “puppy” of the U.S. government for supporting the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

“Don’t mess with me, sir, because you’ll get stung,” Chavez added.

A diplomatic dispute with Cuba in 2004 led Mexico to expel the Cuban ambassador and withdraw its own emissary to Havana, a freeze that lasted for several months. Venezuela is a close ally of Cuba.

Chavez’s comments reignited a dispute that flared late last week, but appeared to cool during the weekend.

On Friday, Aguilar demanded a satisfactory explanation from Venezuela for Chavez’s “puppy” comment and said this country would take “appropriate steps” if it didn’t get one.

But Mexico’s Foreign Relations department released a statement a day later saying Derbez and his Venezuelan counterpart had a “cordial and productive” talk and that the countries were moving closer to a resolution of the dispute that would strengthen their bilateral relationship.