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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
US denies backing Chavez plotters
Hugo Chavez
Chavez has again locked horns with the US
The Bush administration has denied encouraging the ousting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The statement follows reports in the American press indicating that US officials had met opponents of Mr Chavez.

A White House spokesman said on Tuesday that officials had met Venezuelan opposition leaders but had told them they would not support a coup.


We did not even wink at anyone

unnamed US official, quoted by the New York Times

Mr Chavez was reinstated on Sunday amid big street protests by his supporters against the military coup which removed him from power last week.

The US State Department has now told the BBC that they are withdrawing all non-essential diplomats and their dependents from the country, as well as warning Americans to avoid travelling there.

The spokeswoman said the order was a precautionary move, amid fears of renewed political violence.

The warning says Venezuela is currently a "volatile and unpredictable" country for Americans to visit.

The United States has withheld support for Mr Chavez, saying his return to power does not amount to a full restoration of Venezuelan democracy.

'Keep it constitutional'

Controversy surrounds the meetings held between the Bush administration and opposition leaders in Venezuela.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "Our message has been consistent. The political situation in Venezuela is one for the Venezuelans to resolve peacefully, democratically and constitutionally."

One unidentified senior official quoted by the New York Times said that members of the Bush administration had met an anti-Chavez group several times in recent months, but the US had insisted the Venezuelans use constitutional means to remove Mr Chavez.

Chavez enters the Miraflores palace
There were jubilant scenes when Chavez returned

"They came here to complain," the official said.

"Our message was very clear: there are constitutional processes. We did not even wink at anyone."

But a Defense Department official said the administration's message was less categorical.

"We were not discouraging people," the official said. "We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy. We didn't say, 'No, don't you dare,' and we weren't advocates saying, 'Here's some arms; we'll help you overthrow this guy.' We were not doing that."

US plane probe

Mr Chavez has called for national unity and on Monday announced talks on the way forward with state governors and local mayors, including those from the opposition.

The planned meeting will name a reconciliation committee to give voice to opposition concerns.

However, there appears to be no sign of reconciliation with the US on the part of Mr Chavez.

He says a plane with US registration numbers was at an army airstrip on Venezuela's Orchila Island, one of five places he was held in captivity during his brief removal from power.

Mr Chavez has also upset the Bush administration by announcing that Venezuela - the world's fourth largest oil producer - will continue supplying oil to Cuba.

The interim government which briefly replaced Mr Chavez had decided to suspend the exports.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Raphael Jesurum
"In Washington you can almost hear the sound of back-pedalling"
See also:

15 Apr 02 | Americas
Washington's Chavez dilemma
15 Apr 02 | Business
Oil prices rise on Chavez return
14 Apr 02 | Media reports
Chavez calls for national unity
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