LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia on Wednesday accused the United States of helping a New York businessman escape from the South American country where he had spent 18 months in prison and was under house arrest for alleged money laundering.
Interior Minister Carlos Romero said Washington orchestrated a clandestine operation that spirited Jacob Ostreicher, 54, out of Bolivia illegally - further clouding what is known about the entrepreneur's surprise getaway.
"It is certain that the U.S. government participated," Romero told reporters. "We think he must have had some help from the embassy" of the United States in La Paz.
Washington has had a wobbly relationship with the government of President Evo Morales, who regularly accuses the U.S. of meddling in the affairs of Latin American countries.
Washington on Wednesday denied having a hand in Ostreicher's flight.
"The U.S. government was not involved in Mr. Ostreicher's departure from Bolivia," said a U.S. State Department spokeswoman who declined to be identified.
On Tuesday White House deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said U.S. officials had attended all of Ostreicher's court hearings and given him consular access since his arrest in June of 2011.
Ostreicher's departure has embarrassed and outraged the Bolivian government.
His escape marks the second high-profile flight from Bolivia in four months.
Bolivian opposition senator Roger Pinto fled to Brazil in August after being accused of corruption and spending a year holed up in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz.
On Tuesday Bolivian Justice Minister Cecilia Ayllon said she will ask Washington to extradite Ostreicher. The two countries have an extradition treaty.
Ayllon said Ostreicher snuck across the Peruvian border Sunday night and flew to the United States from Lima, and that she will also ask Interpol for help in bringing him back to Bolivia.
Ostreicher was arrested for alleged money laundering and connections to drug traffickers related to his purchase of a rice farm in 2008.
Ostreicher has denied all allegations and insisted the prosecution lacked proof of wrongdoing.
He spent a year and a half in prison before being placed under house arrest in December of 2012.
The Hollywood actor Sean Penn drew attention to Ostreicher's case, arguing he had been illegally detained. U.S. lawmakers also sent a letter urging Morales to release him.
(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, writing by Mitra Taj; editing by Andrew Hay)