US is trying to overthrow me, says Venezuelan leader

The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, yesterday angrily accused the United States of being behind a 2002 coup and of helping continuing opposition attempts to overthrow him.

Mr Chavez said the US Government was providing millions of dollars to Venezuelan groups. "The Government of Washington is using the money of its people to support not only opposition activities but acts of conspiracy," the President said.

A visit to Venezuela on Monday by Peter DeShazo, US deputy assistant Secretary of State for western hemisphere affairs, was part of the campaign "to try to destabilise Venezuela", Mr Chavez said. The US official urged the election authorities not to use technicalities to invalidate petitions demanding a recall referendum that could lead to a new presidential election.

Relations between Venezuela, a top oil supplier, and the US have been strained over Mr Chavez's friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro and his open criticism of Washington-backed free market policies. Mr Chavez said he had evidence that Washington was involved in an April 2002 coup that ousted him for two days. President George Bush's administration "had a responsibility in the massacre" that helped trigger the coup in which 19 died and US military personnel were involved, he said.

Mr Chavez was restored by loyalist troops. Washington was slow to condemn the coup, initially blaming the President for his own downfall, but has repeatedly denied involvement.

He cited the case of Sumate, a Venezuelan group that organised the recall petition. It received funds from the US National Endowment for Democracy. Venezuela's National Elections Council is now determining whether the petition is valid.

The Venezuelan Workers Confederation, which led a strike in 2003 that failed to topple Mr Chavez, has also been a beneficiary of the endowment's funds, Venezuela says, citing documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act.

The US embassy said it had no immediate comment on yesterday's remarks, but the US State Department recently denied Venezuelan allegations that Washington was funding anti-Chavez groups.

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