'Threats' to Venezuelan minister provoke war of words with US

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The Independent US

New tension has flared between Caracas and Washington after Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, accused police at New York's John F Kennedy international airport of illegally holding him and treating him abusively as he tried to fly home over the weekend.

The State Department said yesterday that the incident had been "regrettable" and that it had apologised. But Mr Maduro was not be mollified. "We were detained during an hour-and-a-half, and threatened by police with being beaten," he said. "We hold the US government responsible," he declared, rejecting the apology as insufficient.

The new spat between Caracas and Washington has capped an incendiary week which saw the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez describe President George Bush as "the devil" from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, before telling passers-by in a Harlem street that the US leader was "a sick man" and "an alcoholic".

According to the Foreign Minister, the airport authorities at one point ordered him and other members of his delegation to spread their arms and legs and be frisked, but they flatly refused. "They tried to put on some handcuffs," he said, but "they would have had to take us out of that airport dead if they tried to touch us."

Predictably, the American version of events was somewhat different. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees airport security screening in the US, denied that Mr Maduro had been mistreated.

The Foreign Minister, said the spokesman, had been picked out for "secondary screening" - an additional security procedure but did not say why. Mr Maduro "began to articulate his frustration ... right after he went through the magnetometer [the walk-through metal detector]," and police "confronted him when the situation became a ruckus". The delay caused Mr Maduro to miss his flight. Instead, he went back to the Venezuelan mission to the UN, and called a press conference.

Mr Maduro said that the Venezuelan government had complained to Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, and consulted lawyers. The detention was a "flagrant violation of international law" and Mr Maduro's diplomatic immunity. It had been "a deliberate attempt to provoke us". Mr Chavez told Venezuelan television that the Foreign Minister was held because the US authorities had linked him with a failed coup in 1992, led by the future president.

The Maduro affair leaves relations with Washington at their worst since 2002, when the US instantly recognised the organisers of the coup that briefly toppled Mr Chavez, before massive street protests swept him back to power.