Monday, April 10, 2006

Venezuela's Chavez threatens to expel US ambassador

Venezuela's Chavez threatens to expel US ambassador

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez on Sunday threatened to expel the US ambassador to Caracas in a warning that will further strain relations between the two governments.

The threat came two days after Chavez supporters lobbed fruit and eggs at the ambassador's car and the State Department warned Venezuela it could face consequences if it did not protect the envoy.

Chavez, an ally of Cuba who accuses Washington of working to topple his government, accused Ambassador William Brownfield of stirring up the protest and warned he would declare him persona non grata if he insisted on provoking incidents.

"Start packing your bags Mister, if you keep on provoking us, start packing you bags, because I'll kick you out of here," Chavez said on his regular Sunday television program.

"If Washington takes any measure against Venezuela because of your provocations, you will be responsible and you will have to leave here, we'll declare you persona non grata in Venezuela," he said as crowds of supporters cheered.

The threat comes as Chavez and Washington are locked in a fierce dispute over his close ties to Havana and Tehran. Government officials portray the former soldier as a growing threat to regional democracy.

Chavez earlier this year expelled a US naval attache he accused of spying and the US government responded with the tit-for-tat expulsion of a Venezuelan embassy official from Washington.

Despite political tensions, Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, remains a key supplier of crude to the US market. But Chavez says he wants to wean Venezuela off its economic reliance on the United States.

A spokesman for the US embassy in Caracas was not immediately available for comment.