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U.S. dismisses call for Chavez's killing

Venezuela VP urges U.S. to act on Robertson's 'criminal' remark

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Robertson, shown here in a file photo, said Venezuela's Chavez "is a dangerous enemy."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Bush administration officials Tuesday dismissed Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as the remarks of a private citizen, but Venezuela accused Robertson of promoting terrorism.

Venezuela's Vice President Vicente Rangel accused Robertson of inciting violence and challenged the White House to take action against Robertson.

"What is the U.S. government going to do about this criminal statement made by one of its citizens?" he asked.

Robertson told viewers of his longtime show, "The 700 Club," on Monday that Chavez was turning his oil-rich South American country into "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent." (Full story)

"If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it," said Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition. (Watch video of Robertson's comments)

In Havana, where he had met with Cuban President Fidel Castro to discuss relations between the two countries, Chavez told reporters he had never heard of Robertson.

Asked about the broadcaster's call for his assassination, Chavez said, "It doesn't matter to me."

"I don't know who that person is," he said. "As far as his opinion of me goes, I couldn't care less."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that Robertson has the right of any private citizen to say whatever he wants, but added that the broadcaster's remarks "do not represent the views of the United States."

"His comments are inappropriate," he said. "Allegations that we are planning to take hostile action against the Venezuelan government are completely baseless and without fact."

But Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez, said Robertson was "no ordinary private citizen" and demanded the White House strongly condemn the remarks.

Alvarez said the Christian Coalition, which Robertson no longer leads, claims some 2 million members and helped jump-start President Bush's 2000 presidential campaign after his New Hampshire primary loss.

"Robertson has been one of this president's staunchest allies," he said.

"The United States might not permit its citizens to use its territory and airwaves to incite terrorists abroad and the murder of a democratically elected president," Alvarez said. "Venezuela demands that the U.S. abide by international and domestic law and respect its country and our president."

Venezuela's vice president said the U.S. response "challenges the antiterrorist ideology of the American government."

"What are the American authorities going to do? The ball is in their court," Rangel said.

Neither Bush nor any White House spokesperson commented on the matter Tuesday.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who ran against Robertson for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, called the comments "stupid" and "ludicrous" and suggested Robertson apologize "very quickly."

Ties to Cuba

Chavez has built extensive ties to Cuba since he was elected in 1998 and has become a close friend of Castro, selling oil to the communist island at preferential rates.

The colorful former Venezuelan army officer, who once led a coup attempt himself, has the widespread support of his country's poor.

His opponents, largely drawn from the country's middle and upper classes, accuse him of undermining democratic institutions.

Chavez was re-elected under a new constitution in 2000. In 2004, he won a recall referendum with the support of 58 percent of voters.

But he has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the United States, which he accuses of having been behind a 2002 coup attempt that forced him from office for two days.

The Bush administration denied involvement in the coup attempt, but refused to condemn it.

Assassinations of world leaders have been forbidden since 1976 under an executive order from then-President Gerald Ford.

The rule came after congressional hearings in the 1970s documented numerous CIA attempts to kill Castro and U.S. interference in the politics of several other Latin American countries.

Chavez has also said the United States has tried to stir opposition to his government, and he warned this month that U.S. troops would be "soundly defeated" if Washington were to invade Venezuela. (Full story)

But Tuesday, he offered to sell Venezuelan fuel directly to "people who are most in need within the United States" -- bypassing American oil companies to bring cheaper gas prices.

Administration officials have been sharply critical of Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States.

During her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out Venezuela as a "negative force" in the region, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has suggested Venezuela has interfered with the internal affairs of other countries in the region.

Rumsfeld also dismissed Robertson's comments Tuesday, telling reporters at the Pentagon that "our department doesn't do that kind of thing."

Last week, the head of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, asked Rumsfeld to tone down his anti-Chavez rhetoric, warning that the United States needed Venezuelan help to battle the drug trade.

Venezuela has accused agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency of spying on the Chavez government. The Bush administration denies those allegations as well.

Controversial statements are not new to the 75-year-old Robertson.

He has suggested in the past that a meteor could strike Florida because of unofficial "Gay Days" at Disney World, and that feminism caused women to kill their children, practice witchcraft and become lesbians.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Robertson was wrong to recommend the assassination.

But noting that Robertson's show has a section where he's a political pundit, Haggard added, "I think you to need to understand the context."

"I think what he was saying was, we have a looming problem down south, and there are several bad options there. And he's saying maybe the least of the bad options is to do something about the dictator."

The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said, "It's absolutely chilling to hear a religious leader call for the murder any of political leader."

CNN's Lucia Newman contributed to this report.

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