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Embassy official: U.S. personnel not involved in coup

From CNN Correspondent Lucia Newman

CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- A U.S. Embassy official said Thursday U.S. personnel did not work with or try to manage last week's failed coup attempt in Venezuela, even though a source in the president's office claims the U.S. military attache in Caracas was with coup planners hours before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was overthrown.

The official said that last Thursday evening, shortly after the coup attempt began, reports were heard "that Fort Tiuna might be closing down or that there was unusual movement." Fort Tiuna is Caracas' main military base.

"Two of our people [military attaches] drove around the fort to see what was going on, but they never left the car and there was no contact whatsoever," the official said.

The embassy official said a U.S. military attache also attended a news conference at the base held by Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, one of the coup leaders.

The conference was held Saturday, the day the coup began to fizzle, but attending such conferences is usual U.S. policy, the official said.

The attache was at the armed forces inspector general's office at Fort Tiuna "during the preparation for and up until the coup," the source told Agence France-Presse .

Observers have suggested the United States might have played a role in the coup attempt because it has frequently been at odds with Chavez, a left-wing populist friendly to the regimes of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The Bush administration said Tuesday it did not encourage the coup, but acknowledged holding "conversations" with opposition leaders in that oil-rich country, as well as a meeting with Venezuela's military chief-of-staff late last year.

Rebellious military officers ousted Chavez for two days, but he returned to office Sunday, supported by the nation's poor.

After Chavez's removal Friday, the Bush administration did not condemn the action. Instead it blamed street protests on "undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration."

In addition to fears that Chavez may be trying to stifle democratic institutions within Venezuela, administration officials have been concerned about relationships between Chavez and Colombian rebel groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which Washington views as a terrorist organization.

U.S. officials said Chavez has been warned that any evidence of Venezuelan support of the Colombian rebels would have negative consequences.

After the military action in Venezuela, several leaders of other nations -- including Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina and Paraguay -- condemned the seizure of power. Asked if the Bush administration had undercut its own moral authority by not speaking out sooner, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended the U.S. response, saying the situation in Venezuela last weekend had been fluid.

"There's no secret that President Chavez has had a rule that has been controversial and was not met with widespread popular support within Venezuela or among his neighbors and certainly in the United States with President Bush," Fleischer said. He called the widespread protests last week against Chavez "no surprise."




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