* Police, looking for drugs, found rifles on board
* Latest diplomatic spat between Caracas and Washington
* Venezuela on edge ahead of Oct. 7 presidential vote
By Hugh Bronstein
CARACAS, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Venezuela has dropped weapons charges against the American captain of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship arrested last week after three rifles were found on board, people familiar with the latest diplomatic rumpus between Washington and Caracas said.
Authorities suspecting the vessel of arms trafficking put 14 crew members under armed guard at the rear of the vessel, the “Ocean Atlas,” while the captain was taken on land for questioning.
“The charges have been dropped,” said Mark Miller, spokesman for the ship’s Florida-based management company Crowley Maritime .
“The captain is back on board the ship with the crew and plans are being made to leave port, which it will at the soonest opportunity,” Miller told Reuters by telephone on Monday.
The U.S. embassy in Caracas declined to comment, but a spokesman for the Venezuelan government confirmed that the matter had been resolved.
The captain’s detention followed last month’s arrest of another U.S. citizen, who was accused of entering illegally from neighboring Colombia and denounced as a possible “mercenary” by President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez, a socialist seeking re-election next month, is a ferocious critic of Washington, and his nearly 14-year rule has been characterized by frequent bilateral incidents.
He made headlines in 2006 when he called then U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil himself,” and recently urged the rich to vote for him on Oct. 7 to prevent a “civil war” in the OPEC-member country.
Venezuelan police boarded the Ocean Atlas shortly after it moored last week, saying they had received a tip that the vessel carried illegal drugs, according to an account given by a crew member in an email to Reuters.
The officials searched the vessel and found no drugs, but did find rifles stored on board the ship for security, according to the crew member, who asked not to be named.
Weapons are common on commercial ships on the high seas as possible defense against pirates or other threats.