CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's foreign minister was detained by U.S. authorities at a New York airport for more than hour Saturday as he tried to return to the South American country, President Hugo Chavez said.
U.S. and U.N. officials called the incident regrettable but said Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro had been identified for "secondary screening," a security check that can kick in when a passenger arrives without a ticket.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told Venezuela's state TV broadcaster that U.S. officials alleged that Maduro had links to a failed coup that Chavez led in Venezuela in 1992.
"They have held him accusing him of participating in terrorist acts here," Chavez said in Venezuela. "He didn't even participate in that patriotic rebellion," he said referring to the uprising he led while still an army officer.
Both Venezuelan politicians were in New York the past week attending the yearly U.N. General Assembly, where Chavez attracted attention with a speech calling President Bush "the devil." He later criticized the U.S. leader during a stop in Harlem before returning home.
"The airline identified him for secondary screening," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said in Washington.
Airlines check passengers names against watch lists and apply certain criteria — such as paying for a ticket with cash — to direct passengers to a more intensive, or "secondary," screening process.
"From secondary screening the department was able to confirm his identity as the foreign minister for Venezuela," Knocke said.
A U.N. diplomat, who spoke condition of anonymity because not authorized to speak publicly, said that Maduro's passage was delayed because he had showed up late without a ticket, prompting the screening process.
"We can confirm that a regrettable incident occurred at John F. Kennedy airport for which the U.S. government has apologized to Foreign Minister Maduro and the government of Venezuela," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. He did not elaborate.
Maduro told CNN en Espanol shortly after being released that he was confined to a small room and told to remove his clothes.
When he explained that he was the Venezuelan foreign minister and showed his diplomatic passport, he says he was threatened, pushed and yelled at by immigration and police officials.
"They were violating diplomatic conventions," he said.
In remarks carried by Venezuelan TV stations, Maduro said U.S. authorities claimed a code on his airplane ticket identified him as "almost a terrorist" and that two police officers had threatened to hit and handcuff him.
Maduro abandoned his plans to board his flight and returned to New York city.
The incident comes as tensions between the two countries have taken a particularly confrontational turn this week.
Chavez has previously called Bush a "devil," "donkey" and "madman." While two countries are tied by oil — Venezuela is among the top five suppliers of crude to the U.S. — relations soured sharply in 2002 after the Bush administration swiftly recognized leaders who briefly ousted Chavez in a coup, before the Venezuelan returned to power amid street protests.
But this week's verbal attacks against his long-time foe while on American soil elicited a sharp backlash.
Bush's political foes and friends alike have condemned the remarks, newspapers have sharply criticized the Venezuelan leader, while a call has emerged for businesses to boycott Venezuela-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp. One U.S. governor said his state is no longer interested in buying discounted heating oil from Venezuela this winter.
Earlier Saturday, Chavez said Bush may be seeking to kill him for calling him "the devil" at the United Nations.
"Some worried friends over there have called me (to say) that because I called him the devil they have condemned me to death," Chavez said without elaborating further on his sources.
"But they won't kill me. I have faith in life," he said. "I know how to take care of myself and the Lord will protect me and you all will protect me," he told a cheering crowd in eastern Venezuela where he was visiting a group of state-funded agricultural cooperatives.