Venezuela says ex-general sought by U.S. to be freed in Aruba

CARACAS Sun Jul 27, 2014 5:51pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Sunday that retired military General Hugo Carvajal, wanted by the United States over drug accusations and arrested four days ago on the Caribbean island of Aruba, would be freed and return home shortly.

"A plane is taking off at this moment ... to go and pick up our comrade Hugo Carvajal," Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said on state TV, hailing it as "a new victory" for Venezuela.

Carvajal, head of military intelligence from 2004 to 2008 during the presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, was arrested on Wednesday after flying to the semi-autonomous island that is part of the kingdom of the Netherlands.

Venezuela's socialist government called the detention of Carvajal at Washington's behest an illegal "kidnapping" and threatened reprisals if he was not released.

Jaua said the Dutch government had accepted Venezuela's argument that Carvajal should have diplomatic immunity because he had been nominated consul to Aruba.

Washington wanted him extradited.

"The detention on July 23 was a violation of immunity. The (Dutch) kingdom will ensure he is liberated," said Jaua, reading what he described as an official communication from the Dutch government at a congress of Venezuela's ruling party.

There was no confirmation from the Netherlands.

Opposition politicians said the Carvajal case was the tip of an iceberg in Venezuela after what they allege are years of official connivance in the illegal drug trade and aid to Colombian guerrillas.

The U.S. government put Carvajal on a blacklist in 2008, accusing him of protecting cocaine shipments from seizure by Venezuela anti-narcotics authorities and providing weapons and shelter to Colombia's FARC rebels on the border.

He denies those charges.

Carvajal's lawyer, Chris Lejuez, speaking to Reuters by telephone from Aruba, confirmed his client was about to be freed in a case that had threatened a new flare-up in ever-tense relations between Venezuela and the United States.

"We are waiting for him to be released," he said.

The Dutch decision, if confirmed, overruled a decision on Friday by an Aruba court to reject Carvajal's immunity claim. Though nominated by Venezuela as consul, he had not yet been ratified in the post, media in Venezuela and Aruba said.

Carvajal, who took part in the failed 1992 coup that lifted Chavez to political prominence, is considered one of the most powerful figures of the late president's 1999-2013 rule.

Chavez died of cancer last year, and his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, won an election to replace him as president, keeping the ruling Socialist Party in power.

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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