Ambassador: No Americans Held in Venezuela

The United States' top diplomat in Venezuela on Monday denied claims by President Hugo Chavez (search) that a woman linked to the U.S. military had been arrested while photographing a military installation.

"I am absolutely sure that there was no detention of any U.S. official or soldier here in Venezuela during recent months," said U.S. Ambassador William Brownsfield (search).

Chavez — in a speech Sunday during which he also confirmed that Venezuela was canceling a 35-year-old military exchange program with the United States — also said that several other Americans were also caught taking pictures of an oil refinery.

He did not say whether the woman had been released or provide other details about the incident.

Chavez suggested the two separate incidents could be a sign that President Bush's administration might be planning an invasion to take control of Venezuela's immense oil reserves, a charge he has leveled before and which the Washington has denied.

Brownsfield said the U.S. Embassy in Caracas had not been notified about any such arrest. But he confirmed that in February a woman enlisted in the U.S. military lost a purse in the city of Maracay (search), home to Venezuela's main air force base and numerous military installations.

The purse belonging to the woman contained her military ID card, passport and a disposable camera, said an American embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The woman was dressed in civilian clothes and had been in the city to visit a military museum and was never detained, the official said.

The reports were the latest in an ongoing salvo of accusations and recriminations between Caracas and Washington that began when Chavez was elected to office in 1999.

The self-proclaimed revolutionary has accused the Bush administration of supporting efforts to oust him and of otherwise trying to undermine his government.

U.S. officials have criticized his close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro (search) and have cautioned that Chavez, a leftist former paratrooper, is a destabilizing force in the region.

In his speech Sunday, Chavez complained that Venezuelan-based U.S. officers participating in the military exchange program were spreading a negative image of his government to Venezuelan students.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli described the decision to end the program as "unfortunate."