Chavez slams critics for downplaying alleged plot

President Hugo Chavez reprimanded skeptics on Sunday for questioning his warnings that Washington is out to kill him ї an accusation that Venezuela's opposition dismisses as a ploy to distract attention from domestic problems such as rampant violent crime and corruption, reported Associated Press.

Venezuelans are sharply divided between those who believe that radicals backed by the United States are plotting to assassinate their socialist leader, as the government claims, and critics who seriously doubt the accusations.

"Those who talk about it try to ridicule the allegation. For Venezuela's opposition, it's a lie," Chavez said on his Sunday broadcast show. "Some say it's a farce."

"They don't care about my death," Chavez added, suggesting some government adversaries would like to see him assassinated.

Chavez ordered the U.S. ambassador to leave Venezuela last week ї both to underscore his accusation that the envoy was aiding a purported coup plot by dissident military officers, and to show support for embattled Bolivian President Evo Morales, who expelled the U.S. envoy in that country after accusing him of egging on opposition protesters. The U.S. ambassadors in both countries have denied the allegations.

Chavez also recalled Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, saying diplomatic relations will not return to normal until President George W. Bush leaves the White House.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the allegations against the ambassador false, saying Duddy's expulsion reflects Chavez's "weakness and desperation."

Chavez made the accusations after a recording surfaced of a purported conversation between conspirators on plans to assassinate him and topple his government. He claims plotters sought to blow up the presidential plane or bomb the presidential palace.

Five suspects including active and retired military officers have been detained. Military prosecutors are questioning others.

In the recording, a voice identified as an ex-officer says "we're going to take" the presidential palace. Others discuss using troops to block highways and establishing communications with military outposts surrounding Caracas.

"It's proof they'll do anything to get rid of Chavez," said Omar Blanco, a 56-year-old mechanic interviewed in downtown Caracas. He vowed to defend the president "if they try to remove him from power."

It was not clear when the conversation broadcast on state television was recorded. The military officers identified as suspects have not responded to the accusations publicly, and some suspect the recording is bogus.

"Who would be so stupid as to plan a coup or assassination during a telephone conversation, giving names of the conspirators and details?" radio talk show host Marta Colomina, a fierce Chavez critic, wrote in an editorial published Sunday in the local El Universal newspaper.

Chavez has accused Washington of conspiring with his opponents to assassinate him or spur his ouster dozens of times since he took office in 1999.

In 2006, Chavez said a sniper with a long-range rifle had planned to shoot him as he exited a helicopter on a trip to western Venezuela. The alleged suspect was never arrested.

Several days later, the former paratroop commander said he had received warnings from within the White House that Washington was plotting to assassinate him. He did not provide details or reveal of the name of his alleged source.

And last year, Chavez said Venezuela had gathered intelligence that associates of Cuban militant Luis Posada Carriles ї a former CIA operative ї were plotting his assassination. He did not elaborate, saying only that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte ї a former director of national intelligence ї was involved.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denied that Washington has any designs on Venezuela.

The United States is believed to have been involved in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Binh Diem and repeated attempts to kill Cuba's Fidel Castro ї one of Chavez's closest allies ї but political assassination was officially outlawed by former President Gerald R. Ford in an executive order in the mid-1970s.

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