Venezuela: US should mind own business on protests

Venezuela's top diplomat hit back at the United States on Friday over its suggestion that President Hugo Chavez's government should allow an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the matter is a domestic affair and Washington has no business meddling.

"We absolutely reject that the U.S. get involved in this issue," he said. "Our country does not accept tutelage from anybody."

Maduro was responding to a statement Thursday from the U.S. State Department, which urged the South American nation to permit an investigation "as a means to promote dialogue and understanding."

Diplomatic relations between Venezuela and the United States have been tense for years due to mutual antagonism, spurred by Chavez's frequent condemnations of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and Washington's accusations of deteriorating democracy in Venezuela.

The human rights probe is the key demand of a small but growing group of students conducting a hunger strike and sympathizers who want the chief of the Organization of American States to look into their allegations that the government improperly uses judges and prosecutors to attack Chavez's political adversaries.

Maduro said OAS Secretary-general Jose Miguel Insulza has not contacted Venezuela to make a formal request for a visit.

But Insulza said Friday that he has repeatedly asked for permission to travel to Venezuela.

"I'm not going to start a scandal over this issue, but the truth is I've asked to go numerous times," Insulza said. "I'm not going to go if the government doesn't think I should go."

The hunger strikers, who organizers say number about 68, have been protesting since Jan. 31 in front of the OAS offices and several embassies in Caracas and in other cities. They say they are subsisting only on water and saline solution.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said he discussed the demands with protesters Thursday, and officials were considering some of their demands. But he ruled out the release of government opponents who have been sentenced to prison for crimes such as murder.

Activists vowed Friday to press on until their demands are met.

"If there is no positive response from the government, more people will join the strike," Julio Cesar Rivas said in a phone interview.

Rivas said governments throughout the Americas should press Chavez's administration to respect human rights.

"The issue of human rights is an international issue, so governments in the region have to realize what's happening in Venezuela and react," he said.

Chavez denies his government persecutes opponents.


Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.