U.S. accuses ex-Venezuelan lawmaker of drug conspiracy tied to Middle East militants

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday charged a former Venezuelan lawmaker with taking part with President Nicolas Maduro in a scheme linked to South American and Middle Eastern militant groups to traffic cocaine and military grade weapons.

Federal prosecutors in New York also charged Adel al Zabayar, a 56-year-old former member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, with helping to recruit Hezbollah and Hamas operatives to plan attacks against U.S. targets.

They said in court papers filed in Manhattan that he worked with the Venezuelan criminal organization the Cártel de Los Soles, or “Cartel of the Suns” in English, and Colombian militant group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known by the acronym FARC.

“El Zabayar was part of the unholy alliance of government, military, and FARC members using violence and corruption to further their narco-terrorist aims,” Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for Manhattan, said in a statement. “The Cártel de Los Soles sought to recruit terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas to assist in planning and carrying out attacks on the U.S., and ... El Zabayar was instrumental as a go-between.”

U.S. prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling in March. Maduro has dismissed the charges as a politically motivated fabrication by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

A U.S. law enforcement official said El Zabayar was not in American custody.

Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool