By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - A former minister in President Nicolas Maduro's government denied in an interview published on Friday accusations of corruption during the purchase of three ferries from Spain and said he was being hounded for denouncing currency crimes.
Local media said an arrest warrant was issued earlier this month for Hebert Garcia, a general who served as transportation and food minister for Maduro, on charges of embezzlement in the 50 million euro ($54 million) purchase in 2013.
Maduro, elected to replace the late Hugo Chavez two years ago, has vowed this week to step up a crackdown on corruption, be it from opponents or within his ruling Socialist Party.
But foes accuse him of protecting the worst offenders.
"If they really wanted to fight against corruption, there's plenty to do, but I think they want to sacrifice me," Garcia told local weekly Quinto Dia (Fifth Day).
Garcia, who said he had gone to Panama at the start of the year but did not reveal his present location, said Maduro had taken against him when he began denouncing phantom companies siphoning dollars for non-existent imports.
"I began denouncing some briefcase companies, especially meat importers," he said. "Apparently, it didn't go down very well, because it was touching the interests of some government figures ... Somehow, he (Maduro) began losing trust and our relationship deteriorated. So I resigned."
Maduro has not mentioned the case in public, and officials were not immediately available for comment on Garcia's interview.
The former minister said his lawyers were analyzing the charges against him, which he denied.
The three ferries were fine when bought, he said, though lack of maintenance may have affected them afterwards.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential election, said the case of the ferries was further evidence of both rampant graft and in-fighting among government factions.
"Every day the lid is lifted on another case of corruption involving representatives of the national government," he said, according to a statement from his office.
"One example is what's happening with ex-minister Garcia, who was a hero for the government, and is now a villain. They're airing their dirty laundry ... These gentlemen are responsible for ruining our country."
Venezuela's opposition and government are due to square off in a national election for a new parliament later this year, with corruption allegations a major campaign issue.
(Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Grant McCool)