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Israeli envoy to Caracas expelled

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a hospital in Caracas (06/01/2009)
Mr Chavez has often been critical of Israel and its policies

Venezuela has ordered the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Caracas in protest at Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip.

A number of diplomatic staff have been expelled along with Shlomo Cohen.

President Hugo Chavez has strongly condemned Israel for its actions and called on Israelis to stand up against their government.

Venezuela is the first country to take such a diplomatic step in protest at the violence in Gaza.

"The Israeli army is cowardly attacking worn-out, innocent people, while they claim that they are defending their people," Mr Chavez said during a visit to a children's hospital in Caracas.

"I call on the people of Israel to stand up against that government, to demand, to put a hand on their hearts and look at their children, and I call on the world to stop this madness."

Shortly after, the foreign ministry released a statement ordering the expulsion of Mr Cohen and some of his staff, in what they said was a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.

The BBC's Will Grant in Caracas says Mr Chavez often uses strong language to criticise Israel and is a close ally of Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of Israel's main enemies.

Venezuela also has a large Arab community who have welcomed the government's move, our correspondent adds.

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