Peru recalled its ambassador from Venezuela on Saturday, protesting what it said was President Hugo Chavez's interference in Peru's election after the Venezuelan leader called candidate Alan Garcia a "thief" and openly endorsed nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala.

"The government of Peru has decided to immediately remove its ambassador from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for the persistent and flagrant interference in internal affairs of Peru in clear violation of the principles and norms of international law," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The statement said the decision also was in response to "repeated declarations" by Chavez about Peru's electoral process and comments he made Saturday aimed at Peru's President Alejandro Toledo.

The escalating war of words began when Garcia earlier this week referred to Chavez and his close ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, as spoiled children for criticizing Peru's signing of a free-trade pact with the United States.

Venezuela on Saturday defended Chavez's comments, saying they were a justified response to recent provocations after Peru issued a formal diplomatic complaint a day earlier.

The Foreign Ministry in Caracas said Venezuela had a right to respond "in the way it deems best to crude aggressions against our country."

Venezuela said "unjustified attacks" had been made against Chavez and accused certain sectors in Peru of using any pretext "to attribute responsibility for internal problems and electoral disputes to President Hugo Chavez."

On Friday, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo told reporters "I will not permit President Chavez to once again interject himself (in Peru's affairs) ... much less with blackmail and threats."

Chavez's statements are "an unacceptable and repeated interference in a subject that is the exclusive internal affair of Peru," Peru's Foreign Ministry said separately in a letter sent to the Venezuelan ambassador.

Chavez was defiant to the criticism Saturday.

"It's nothing personal — it's ideological, political, ethical: (Garcia) is immoral," Chavez said during a meeting with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Morales in Havana, where the three signed a trade pact.

He said that the complaints by Toledo's government showed that Garcia and the Peruvian leader are "crocodiles from the same waterhole."