By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States accused Venezuela on Tuesday of using economic pressure, including a reported threat to close an oil refinery, to apply pressure on the Netherlands not to extradite an official whom Washington wants on drugs charges.
Instead of being extradited to the United States, retired Venezuelan General Hugo Carvajal flew home on Sunday from the Netherlands' Caribbean island Aruba after the Dutch government ruled he had diplomatic immunity. He was arrested on Aruba on Wednesday.
The U.S. State Department said Caracas had issued a public note that threatened to cease diplomatic and economic relations with the Netherlands. Flights were also stopped between Aruba and Venezuela, stranding hundreds of passengers, a State representative said in an emailed statement.
And media in Curacao quoted the Isla Refinery’s managing director as saying representatives of the Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA visited Curacao to discuss the possible closure of the refinery, which is leased by PDVSA, the statement said.
The case threatened a new flare-up in tense relations between Caracas and Washington, as well as potentially stirring up accusations of officially sanctioned drug trading by Venezuela.
Opposition politicians in Venezuela and the U.S. government say Carvajal, who ran military intelligence in Caracas from 2004 to 2008, bears responsibility for years of state connivance in the illegal drug trade.
Carvajal denies the charges. Carvajal was considered one of the most powerful figures during the rule of the late socialist President Hugo Chavez, a U.S. antagonist.
Venezuelan officials have been crowing about a victory over U.S. "imperialism" since Carvajal's return. Various visiting foreign dignitaries, including the presidents of Bolivia and Nicaragua, also have congratulated Venezuela on Carvajal's return and criticized what they see as U.S. meddling in the region.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Grant McCool)