CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s foreign minister was detained by U.S. authorities at a New York airport for more than hour Saturday as he tried to return to the South American country, President Hugo Chavez announced on TV.

Chavez told government broadcasters that U.S. officials had held Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro for alleged links to a failed coup on Feb. 4, 1992 in Venezuela.

“They have held him accusing him of participating in terrorist acts here on the fourth of February, when that is absolutely false,” said Chavez.

“He didn’t even participate in that patriotic rebellion,” Chavez said, referring to the uprising he led while still an army officer that had aimed to oust then-President Carlos Andres Perez.

Maduro was part of Chavez’s delegation during a highly charged visit to New York this week when the Venezuelan leader called U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations.

“This is a provocation. By whom? By Mr. Devil,” Chavez said.

Maduro, who was part of Chavez’s delegation, had stayed behind for two extra days to work on Venezuela’s bid against U.S.-backed Guatemala for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, Chavez said.

Maduro told CNN en Espanol shortly after being released that he was confined to a small room and told to remove his clothes.

When he explained that he was the Venezuelan foreign minister and showed his diplomatic passport, he says he was threatened, pushed and yelled at by immigration and police officials.

“They were violating diplomatic conventions,” he said.

In remarks carried by Venezuelan TV stations, Maduro said U.S. authorities claimed a code on his airplane ticket identified him as “almost a terrorist” and that two police officers had threatened to hit and handcuff him.

“This is an outrageous incident, reprehensible from all points of view and unacceptable,” Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said. Venezuela will protest to the U.S. government, he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, “we can confirm that a regrettable incident occurred at John F. Kennedy airport for which the U.S. government has apologized to Foreign Minister Maduro and the government of Venezuela.” He did not elaborate on what prompted the incident.

Maduro abandoned his plans to board his flight and returned to New York city.

The incident comes as tensions between the two countries have taken a particularly confrontational turn this week.

Chavez has previously called Bush a “devil,” “donkey” and “madman.” While two countries are tied by oil – Venezuela is among the top five suppliers of crude to the U.S. – relations soured sharply in 2002 after the Bush administration swiftly recognized leaders who briefly ousted Chavez in a coup, before the Venezuelan returned to power amid street protests.

But this week’s verbal attacks against his long-time foe while on American soil elicited a sharp backlash.

Bush’s political foes and friends alike have condemned the remarks, newspapers have sharply criticized the Venezuelan leader, while a call has emerged for businesses to boycott Venezuela-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp. One U.S. governor said his state is no longer interested in buying discounted heating oil from Venezuela this winter.

Earlier Saturday, Chavez said Bush may be seeking to kill him for calling him “the devil” at the United Nations.

“Some worried friends over there have called me (to say) that because I called him the devil they have condemned me to death,” Chavez said without elaborating further on his sources.

“But they won’t kill me. I have faith in life,” he said. “I know how to take care of myself and the Lord will protect me and you all will protect me,” he told a cheering crowd in eastern Venezuela where he was visiting a group of state-funded agricultural cooperatives.

AP-ES-09-23-06 2109EDT


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