Venezuela's vice president said Friday that military officials at the U.S. Embassy were involved in an espionage case in which prosecutors believe Venezuelan naval officers passed sensitive information to the Pentagon.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel made the accusation in response to a reporter's question about the investigation. Rangel said earlier this week that a group of current and former Venezuelan officers were passing information to the U.S. military.
"The Venezuelan government has confidential information, properly verified, that officials of the U.S. military mission are involved in that act," Rangel said, without giving details.
"It doesn't surprise me because the U.S. military mission was totally involved in the coup of April 11," 2002, Rangel said, referring to the coup that briefly unseated President Hugo Chavez until he was restored to power by street protests and loyalists in the military.
Chavez has repeatedly accused Washington of involvement, pointing to intelligence documents released by the U.S. indicating the CIA knew beforehand that dissident officers planned the coup. U.S. officials have strongly denied any attempts to overthrow Chavez, calling the accusations ridiculous.
The accusations of espionage have brought new tension to an already rocky relationship between Washington and Chavez's government.
Venezuelan officers held
Military prosecutors accuse the Venezuelans of cooperating with the U.S. Embassy's naval attache to pass sensitive information to the Pentagon, said Alonso Medina Roa, a lawyer for one of the suspects.
Medina Roa, who represents retired Capt. Jose Ignacio Plaza, told The Associated Press on Thursday that prosecutors were investigating whether his client and other suspects were "maintaining relations with the naval attache," U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Correa.
He said the men were being investigated for the crime of espionage, but he insisted Plaza is innocent.
The U.S. Embassy declined comment on Rangel's remarks Friday.
U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told the Venezuelan TV channel Globovision on Thursday that he has "absolute trust in the people of my embassy and their desire to maintain and improve bilateral relations."
Brownfield said the U.S. government wants relations "to be as broad and as deep as possible."
Venezuelan officials have yet to say what type of information they believe was compromised, or how many people have been detained.
Medina Roa said that Plaza, a retired officer living in the United States, apparently sent his father-in-law in Venezuela a compact disk that contained technical specifications of military transport planes that Spain planned to sell to Venezuela.
He said the information was not secret and belonged to EADS-Casa, the Spanish branch of a European aerospace consortium — and "not the Venezuelan government."
The planes — 10 C-295 transport planes and two CN-235 patrol planes — are part of a $2 billion defense deal that has been stalled because the U.S. has denied Spain permission to sell the planes if they contain U.S. parts.
In a speech Thursday night, Chavez did not mention the espionage investigation but called the U.S. government "immoral" and sharply criticized Washington's attempt to block another deal for Venezuela to buy 20 Brazilian planes.