CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez said Thursday Venezuela will expel a U.S. official accused of passing secret information from Venezuelan military officers to the Pentagon and warned he would throw out all U.S. military attaches if any further espionage occurred.
The U.S. Embassy confirmed it had received a communique from Venezuela's foreign ministry on Tuesday asking that its naval attache John Correa be declared a persona non grata.
"We have decided ... to throw out of the country a military official from the military mission of the United States for espionage," Chavez said in a nationally televised speech celebrating the seventh anniversary of his government.
"We have declared the United States Navy commander named John Correa persona non grata. He should leave the country immediately," Chavez said.
The announcement was greeted by cheers and applause from an audience of several thousand gathered to mark the anniversary.
The case surfaced last week when Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said an undisclosed number of active and retired Venezuelan military officers were caught passing information to the Pentagon. Chavez's announcement on Thursday marked his government's sharpest accusations yet, and the first time he has mentioned Correa publicly by name.
The accusations of espionage have heightened tensions in an already rocky relationship between Washington and Chavez's government.
Embassy spokeswoman Salome Hernandez confirmed the Embassy had received the foreign ministry communique but declined to comment on whether Correa was currently in Venezuela.
"We warn the imperial government of the United States that if their military attaches in Venezuela continue to do what this captain has been doing, they will be detained ... and the next step would be to withdraw the whole so-called military mission of the United States," Chavez said.
"Venezuela is respectful, and will always be respectful of international conventions" on diplomatic missions, Chavez said. But in cases where an embassy official is caught in flagrant wrongdoing, "we detain him and we turn him over to the embassy so that he leaves the country immediately," he added.
Chavez planned to travel to Cuba later Thursday to meet his close friend and ally Fidel Castro and receive a U.N. award.
The Venezuelan president will receive UNESCO's 2005 International Jose Marti Prize on Friday in Havana, where the Communist Party daily Granma said the government plans a massive gathering of more than 200,000 people in Revolution Plaza in his honor.
"I'm not going to receive it for me, rather for all of you, for the Venezuelan people. That's why I'm going to Havana," Chavez said.