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Owner of anti-Chavez TV channel says he won't surrender despite arrest warrant in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The owner of a Venezuelan television channel that takes a critical line against President Hugo Chavez said Monday he has no plans to surrender to authorities despite an order for his arrest.

Guillermo Zuloaga, who holds a majority stake in Globovision, told the channel by telephone from an undisclosed location that prosecutors are trying to arrest him to curb his channel's criticism.

"With my surrender I wouldn't do the country any favor," Zuloaga said. "Globovision and myself have been unfairly attacked once again by the government with the only objective of trying to silence our screen so that we don't denounce all of Venezuelans' problems."

Prosecutors want him jailed while he awaits trial on charges of usury and conspiracy for keeping 24 new vehicles stored at a home he owns. Zuloaga, who also owns several car dealerships, called the charges bogus and an attempt by Chavez to take vengeance on him and the channel.

Zuloaga said it was no coincidence that Chavez recently lamented the station owner remained free and that a week later prosecutors and courts acted against him. There had been little activity in the case for months until Chavez complained that Zuloaga remaining free showed "structural weakness" in Venezuela's legal system.

Chavez on Sunday said Zuloaga should turn himself in to defend himself in court. He and other officials deny the case was political.

Zuloaga spoke publicly for the first time since a court issued the arrest order Friday naming him and one of his sons.

Also Monday, the government announced it is taking over management of a private bank owned by Nelson Mezerhane, a minority shareholder of Globovision. Officials said they intervened after discovering serious financial problems, but Mezerhane called the takeover political retribution.

Zuloaga said he doesn't believe the bank takeover will affect Globovision because it is an independent business.

The attempt to arrest the media executive has drawn criticism internationally.

The U.S. government urged Venezuela to uphold its commitment to the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

"We are seriously concerned in Venezuela about the arrest order for Guillermo Zuloaga," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday in Washington. "This is the latest example of the government of Venezuela's continuing assault on the freedom of the press."

Zuloaga is facing separate criminal charges accusing him of making false and offensive remarks about Chavez at a meeting of the Inter American Press Association earlier this year.

Chavez has long accused Globovision and other private media outlets of conspiring against him and trying to undermine his socialist government. Globovision has been the only strongly anti-Chavez channel on the air since another channel, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV in January. RCTV had been booted off the open airwaves in 2007.

The attempt to arrest Zuloaga comes as Globovision and private newspapers have been covering scandals involving the government. In one case, the former president of the main state food distribution company has been arrested after authorities discovered more than 2,300 shipping containers holding expired or decomposing food in government storage.

In another case, a high-ranking former police official, Norman Puerta, was arrested in Andorra earlier this month for alleged involvement in laundering drug money, officials say. The Venezuelan Attorney General's Office is investigating and says Puerta apparently had about $1 million in a bank account in Andorra that had been transferred there through an offshore business in Panama.

Groups including Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern about Zuloaga's case and also condemned a separate sentence handed down last week against Venezuelan journalist Francisco Perez, who was convicted of defaming Valencia Mayor Edgardo Parra, a Chavez ally.

Perez, a veteran columnist for the newspaper El Carabobeno, was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison but was allowed to remain free on the condition he regularly appear in court and not practice journalism. Perez called it a violation of free speech and said he would appeal.

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Associated Press Writer Ian James contributed to this report.