May 19, 2008
CARACAS (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy jet violated Venezuelan airspace around two small Caribbean islands over the weekend in what the South American country said was a provocation coordinated with neighboring Colombia.
Venezuela and the United States bicker over everything from energy policy to arms sales. The incursion comes amid heightened tensions over accusations that Venezuela helped a guerrilla army fighting the government in U.S. ally Colombia.
The Pentagon said a Navy aircraft on a counternarcotics mission had navigation problems that led it to stray into Venezuelan airspace on Saturday.
The U.S. ambassador in Caracas was being summoned to explain the incident, Venezuela's foreign minister said.
"In the event a U.S. aircraft unintentionally enters into the sovereign airspace of another nation, its crew is required to take swift action to exit the airspace and report the incident to their immediate chain of command, which this aircrew apparently did," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
The anti-Washington government of President Hugo Chavez said the flight, which took the jet close to the OPEC member's presidential retreat on the island of La Orchila, was a provocation after Venezuela accused Colombian troops of crossing its border.
"This was a conscious action by the U.S. Navy," Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel said at a news conference. "This is just the latest step in a series of provocations."
Rangel said such incidents probably had happened in the past, but now Venezuela has equipment to detect airspace violations in the area.
The U.S. warplane penetrated Venezuelan airspace around La Orchila and another island about 80 miles from the country's mainland, Rangel said.
Venezuela's air traffic control contacted the aircraft after it entered Venezuela's airspace. The jet identified itself and told the Venezuelan authorities a possible navigation error had occurred, the Pentagon said.
The incident came against a backdrop of tensions between Venezuela and Colombia and the United States. Last week they said an Interpol probe into rebel document proved Chavez has links to Colombian guerrillas.
Chavez rejected the investigation and said he was reviewing ties and trade with Colombia because of the accusations.
A U.S. defense official said the plane was a Viking S-3, a jet often used in anti-drugs operations to track and attack boats.
Chavez frequently accuses the United States and Colombia of plotting to invade Venezuela, one of the largest oil exporters to the United States.
Colombia specifically denied Chavez's charge over the weekend that 60 Colombian soldiers strayed some 500 yards (460 meters) into Venezuelan territory on Friday.
The jet in Saturday's incident belongs to the Joint Interagency Task Force South, an anti-drugs operation based in Florida. It was on a mission from the Caribbean island of Curacao, a U.S. official said.
Curacao is a former Dutch colony that the United States uses for military training.
La Orchila has a military base in addition to the presidential residence. It is well-known in Venezuela because Chavez was held prisoner there during a brief coup against him in 2002.
Venezuela generally bans all but its military from flying over the island.
(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Saul Hudson and Xavier Briand)