Venezuela says US violating airspace from Curacao

AP News
Posted: Dec 31, 2009 2:41 PM

Venezuela's government said Thursday that U.S. military counter-drug flights from nearby Dutch islands are violating its airspace in preparation for an attack. A U.S. official denied the allegation.

A Venezuelan Foreign Ministry statement listed no examples of such violations, but it accused the United States of using "the colonial territories of Aruba and Curacao in preparation for a military aggression against Venezuela."

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has repeatedly complained about Dutch permission for the U.S. to use the islands _ Aruba is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) off his coastline _ for flights meant to monitor drug planes from South America.

Chavez has repeatedly accused the U.S. of plotting to invade Venezuela or overthrow him since 2002, when a failed coup briefly removed him from power. U.S. officials have denied any such plans and say they did not back the coup.

The Foreign Ministry expressed doubt that the flights are aimed at drug traffickers and urged the Netherlands "to abstain from attacking Venezuela or lending its collaboration to that end."

A spokesman for U.S. Defense Department's Southern Command in Miami, Stephen Lucas, denied that U.S. military flights out of Aruba and Curacao are violating Venezuelan airspace. He said a U.S. Navy plane accidentally strayed into Venezuelan airspace on a counter-drug mission seven months ago, but he said "that is an anomaly, not standard operating procedure."

He said the counter-drug flights from the Caribbean islands do not fly over Venezuela because Chavez has denied them access for years, even in cases of hot pursuit.

"It's regrettable the government of Venezuela has chosen to downgrade its cooperation in counter-drug activities but that is the case," Lucas said. "The threat posed by transnational illicit trafficking is a threat to all the nations of the region."

He also denied the flights had any purpose other than fighting narcotics trafficking.

"The point of the existence of our operations on the islands of Curacao and Aruba is counter-drug, and it has absolutely nothing to do with political or other events in Venezuela," he said.

Chavez also has bitterly criticized neighboring Colombia's decision to grant U.S. forces expanded access to its bases, and has said Venezuelan troops at a base near the Colombian border recently spotted what he believes was a U.S. drone in Venezuelan airspace.


Associated Press Writer Mike Melia contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.