Venezuela holds police, guard in synagogue attack

Sun Feb 8, 2009 10:53pm EST

(Adds Chavez comment)

CARACAS, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Seven Venezuelan police agents and four civilians have been arrested in connection with an attack on a synagogue that sparked international condemnation, investigators said on Sunday.

President Hugo Chavez, whom Jewish groups accuse of encouraging anti-Semitism, referred to the arrests and said the attack was led by a police officer who had worked closely with the rabbi at the synagogue.

"What a coincidence, the gang leader is a metropolitan police officer who for the last four years was the personal bodyguard of the synagogue's rabbi," he said during an interview with television station Venevision on Sunday.

Armed men broke into Venezuela's Tiferet synagogue last month, daubed the walls with slogans like "Jews get out" and destroyed religious objects.

Chavez previously blamed the attack on armed groups opposed to his government.

The public prosecutor's office said the civilians detained included at least one security official from the synagogue and that all had been captured in raids over the weekend.

"These people were apprehended during raids carried out between Saturday and the early hours of Sunday in different parts of Caracas. They will all be charged by the public prosecutor's office," the office said in a statement.

The attack produced a deluge of condemnation of Chavez, a vocal critic of Israeli foreign policy who last month expelled Israel's ambassador over the war in Gaza. Members of the U.S. Congress said in a letter that Chavez had fostered a climate of fear against the Jewish community, and the World Jewish Congress was also critical.

Chavez insists he respects all religions. He condemned the attack on the synagogue. Last week he said investigators had found a videotape of the assailants in the temple and predicted arrests would quickly follow.

Representatives of the World Jewish Congress met with Venezuelan officials on Friday and said the government had promised to clamp down on anti-Semitic acts.

Despite the government's assurances, some Chavez supporters are openly anti-Semitic and graffiti has become a common sight on Caracas streets since Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza, which killed nearly 1,300 people. (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Mohammad Zargham)




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