CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela claims a U.S. Coast Guard plane it describes as an intelligence aircraft violated the South American country's airspace.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said Sunday the Dash-8 aircraft flew out of Curacao, a Dutch island not far off Venezuela's Caribbean coast. He said that during a 30-minute period the plane twice entered Venezuelan airspace over the tiny archipelago of Los Monjes on Friday while performing what appeared to be a reconnaissance mission in the Gulf of Venezuela, which is also bounded by Colombia.
In comments on the state channel Telesur, Padrino said other U.S. reconnaissance and military transport aircraft had flown close to Venezuela in recent days.
While he offered no evidence to back the claims, he said the timing of the apparent maneuvers, as the country prepares for key legislative elections next month, was suspicious, recalling other U.S. military exercises that allegedly preceded a brief coup in 2002 against then President Hugo Chavez.
"It's completely unusual that these types of aircraft, with all their electronic surveillance characteristics, to come near our area of influence," said Padrino, adding that the USS George Washington aircraft carrier would pass nearby Venezuela around the same time as the Dec. 6 vote.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas and State Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. operates a so-called forward operating location on Curacao and neighboring Aruba responsible for drug-interdiction operation in the Caribbean region.
President Nicolas Maduro said he would denounce the alleged "military provocation" to the United Nations as well as regional groups such as the Union of South American Nations.
Relations between Venezuela's socialist government and the United States have been strained for years. Earlier this year, Washington sanctioned several senior Venezuelan officials accused of violating human rights of government opponents during a crackdown on anti-government protests.
Several other Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and the former head of military intelligence, have also been sanctioned for alleged involvement in drug-trafficking. According to the U.S. more than 200 metric tons of cocaine, about a third of Colombia's estimated production, pass through Venezuela each year en route to destinations in Europe and the U.S.