NEW YORK – Venezuela's foreign minister said he was illegally detained for 90 minutes at a New York airport by police, accusing them of treating him abusively and attempting to frisk and handcuff him.
U.S. State Department officials called Saturday's incident regrettable and said they had apologized to Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro. But he said that was not enough.
"We were detained during an hour and a half, threatened by police with being beaten," Maduro told reporters at Venezuela's mission to the U.N. "We hold the U.S. government responsible."
Maduro said the authorities at John F. Kennedy International Airport at one point ordered him and other members of his delegation to spread their arms and legs and be frisked, but they forcefully refused.
"They tried to put on some handcuffs," he said, describing it as a threat. "They would have had to take us out of that airport dead if they tried to touch us."
The incident comes as tensions between the two countries — strained for several years — took a particularly confrontational turn this week when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" during a speech to the United Nations.
Maduro said his passport and ticket were retained for a time, and finally given back to him. But he said the incident prevented him from traveling home Saturday.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said it was a "regrettable incident" for which "the U.S. government has apologized to Foreign Minister Maduro and the government of Venezuela."
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke denied that Maduro was mistreated. "There's no evidence to substantiate any sort of abnormality in the screening process." U.S. officials said Maduro had been identified for "secondary screening" — an added security check that can kick in for various reasons.
"He began to articulate his frustration with secondary screening right after he went through the magnetometer," Knocke said, referring to the walk-through metal detector. "Port Authority officials confronted him when the situation became a ruckus." Knocke did not elaborate.
A U.N. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Maduro's trip was delayed because he had showed up late without a ticket, prompting the screening.
Maduro told reporters that his government has been in touch with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and that a team of lawyers had been assigned to the case. Maduro said Venezuela would challenge his detention, calling it "flagrant violation of international law" and his diplomatic immunity.
"We demand a response, justice," said Maduro, saying he was detained "illegally, abusively" and that those responsible should be punished. He said the 118 nations of the Nonaligned Movement — through its president Cuba — was lodging a protest.
Maduro said one official at a security checkpoint pushed him and yelled, saying he had to go to another room where a strip search would be performed. When Maduro explained that he was the Venezuelan foreign minister and showed his diplomatic passport, he said the situation only worsened as more police showed up and began threatening him.
Maduro told reporters that about one hour and 20 minutes into his detention, he received a call from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who apologized and said a group of State Department officials were on their way to resolve the matter.
Maduro said five minutes later, State Department officials arrived and ordered Maduro and the others to spread their arms and legs to be frisked by police.
"We responded with the dignity of Venezuelan revolutionaries... with strength," he said, adding the treatment seemed to be a combination of the daily abuse by U.S. authorities and an "attempt to provoke us."
"It's a Nazi government, a racist government," Maduro said. If this is how they treat a foreign minister, he said, "what won't they do to Arab people for wearing a turban?"
Earlier, Chavez said on Venezuelan television that U.S. officials had detained Maduro after linking him to a failed coup that Chavez led while still an army officer in 1992.
"They have held him accusing him of participating in terrorist acts," Chavez said in Venezuela. "He didn't even participate in that patriotic rebellion."
Maduro, asked if he had been accused of anything, said: "Surely they'll accuse us of... wanting to get rid of imperialism and of wanting peace in the world."
Chavez has previously called Bush a "devil" and a "madman," while Bush and other U.S. officials have called Chavez a danger to democracy.
The U.S. remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil, but 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.
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.