Venezuela's Chavez Welcomes U.S. Diplomat

Venezuela's president said Sunday that he would welcome a visit by a top U.S. State Department official and hopes to build close ties with like-minded Americans despite his vehement opposition to President Bush.

Hugo Chavez said Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, had called his foreign minister to say he wanted to visit, and that Chavez did not object.

However, "he shouldn't come to cause problems, to provoke," Chavez said. "If he shows respect we'll respect him."

The Venezuelan president spoke after meeting with a group of visiting Americans who thanked him for shipping discounted heating oil to low-income U.S. communities this winter.

Chavez didn't say when Shannon would visit, and U.S. Embassy officials said they had no comment.

The visiting Americans were treated as guests of honor during Chavez's weekly radio and television program, broadcast from the eastern town of El Tigre.

"We want to thank you personally for what you're doing for people," said James Sappier, a chief of the Penobscot Indian tribe near Bangor, Maine, who gave Chavez a carved prayer staff and prayed with him.

He was among more than 60 Americans who visited from New York, Vermont and other northeastern states where Venezuela's U.S.-based Citgo Petroleum Corp. arranged for delivery of millions of gallons of discounted heating oil.

Chavez, a fierce critic of Bush, insists the U.S. government has systematically sought ways to overthrow him in order to seize Venezuela's vast oil reserves. U.S. officials have denied that and accuse the Cuban-allied Chavez of posing a threat to democracies in the region.

Chavez Sunday also accused Washington of trying to undermine newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales. The guests on his program included Sandinista presidential candidate Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, who accused the U.S. of interfering in his country's upcoming elections.