By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) - Airlines are halting flights to Venezuela not because of the country's economic problems but to take advantage of the World Cup in neighboring Brazil, the president said on Thursday.
Air Canada recently cut flights to Venezuela because of security concerns, Alitalia suspended services due to delays in repatriating revenue under currency controls, and a clutch of other airlines have reduced the frequency of flights.
Venezuela owes airlines some $4 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association, because the airlines have to sell tickets in the local bolivar currency but cannot get approval to repatriate the revenue.
But Maduro, the socialist successor to the late Hugo Chavez, blasted those factors as smokescreens.
"Some of these announcements are manipulated," he said from an airport in the southwestern state of Apure, where he was inaugurating new domestic flights.
"Some of these European airlines have reprogrammed flights until the World Cup is over and they're re-routing flights to Brazil, given the large number of people round the world who want to enjoy the best World Cup we'll see."
The airline situation has added to the economic problems facing the country, including shortages of basic goods and raging inflation. Those factors have fueled a wave of street protests against his government since February.
Maduro lashed out at companies thinking of closing shop amid what he says is an "economic war" against him by capitalist foes. "Whoever leaves Venezuela in the midst of this economic war doesn't return to Venezuela because Venezuela must be respected," Maduro said, vowing to bolster national and international flights.
Venezuelans wishing to fly abroad are finding it increasingly hard to purchase tickets due to reduced numbers on sale and sky-rocketing prices. Some sit up until the small hours to try and book tickets online as soon as they become available.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Steve Orlofsky)