CARACAS (Reuters) - Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who is seeking asylum in Peru after President Hugo Chavez’s government accused him of corruption, authorities said on Thursday.
Rosales says the charges of illicit enrichment are part of a political witch hunt by Chavez against critics of his socialist revolution. But government supporters say the case is a simple corruption probe and that Rosales is evading justice.
“Interpol already has a red alert out for the capture of Manuel Rosales,” said Wilmer Flores, Venezuela’s chief investigative police officer, who serves as a liaison between the international agency and the OPEC nation’s government.
Rosales’ lawyer in Lima, Javier Valle Riestra, has said Interpol could not intervene after the asylum request was filed. But an Interpol official in Peru said on Thursday the order was in the process of being transmitted and didn’t rule out his arrest.
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro accused Rosales of fleeing the Venezuelan justice system.
“This is a man who has committed serious crimes in his administration of resources that belong to the Venezuelan people,” Maduro said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
Rosales is the most visible face of the country’s fractured opposition. He was elected mayor of oil-hub city Maracaibo last year after losing a presidential bid against Chavez in 2006.
Critics say Chavez has taken control of the justice system and is wielding it against opposition leaders through trumped-up corruption charges while largely leaving allies untouched. Chavez vowed last year to jail Rosales.
Rosales went into hiding last month claiming he could not receive a fair trial, and failed to appear at a preliminary court hearing that would have set a trial date. The court ordered his arrest after his no-show.
Chavez supporters say the opposition is crying foul because the justice system has caught up with its leaders. But Rosales’ backers say it is another case of abuse from a president they say wants to copy Cuban-style communism.
Venezuela’s interior minister on Thursday said authorities had an arrest warrant for Eduardo Manuitt, an ex-Chavez ally and former governor who broke ranks with the president.
Prosecutors are also investigating possible corruption by former Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto, a Chavez ally who has been criticized even by Chavez supporters for governing poorly.
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas and Terry Wade in Lima; Editing by Patricia Zengerle and Eric Walsh