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World News

Jailed American accused by Venezuela of spying was not sent by U.S.: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. citizen held by Venezuelan authorities on accusations of being an American spy was not sent to Venezuela by the U.S. government, a senior Trump administration official said on Wednesday.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor Tarek Saab on Monday announced charges of terrorism and weapons trafficking against Matthew John Heath, detained last week in the South American country where socialist President Nicolas Maduro is deeply at odds with the United States.

Saab said Heath had been plotting attacks against the OPEC nation’s oil industry and electricity system.

“From everything I’ve seen, I can say the United States government did not send Mr. Heath to Venezuela,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy on Venezuela and Iran, told reporters when asked about the case.

Abrams said he was limited in what he could say, for privacy reasons, but added that Venezuela “is particularly difficult because we do not have an embassy with a consular section in Caracas.”

Maduro last week announced Heath’s capture, accusing him of spying on refineries in western Falcon state while carrying “specialized weapons.”

A U.S. government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Monday that Washington was investigating Venezuelan authorities’ claims and advised skepticism.

Saab said Heath had entered Venezuela illegally via the Colombian border, was carrying a “coin” linking him to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, without providing details, and previously worked for a private military contractor. Pro-government media identified Heath as a former U.S. Marine.

Saab said three Venezuelan citizens were arrested and charged with treason as part of the alleged plot.

Caracas last month sentenced two former U.S. soldiers to 20 years in prison for their role in a botched incursion in May that Venezuelan authorities said was aimed at ousting Maduro.

Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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