- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

NEW YORK — Venezuela’s foreign minister said he was detained for 90 minutes by officials at a New York airport and accused authorities of treating him abusively by trying to frisk and handcuff him.

U.S. officials called the Saturday evening incident regrettable and said they had apologized to Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro. But Mr. Maduro said Venezuela would seek a legal challenge through the United Nations to what he called a “flagrant violation of international law” and his diplomatic immunity.

“We were detained for an hour and a half, threatened by police with being beaten,” Mr. Maduro told reporters at Venezuela’s mission to the United Nations. “We hold the U.S. government responsible.”

A U.N. diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Mr. Maduro’s return home had been delayed because he arrived late at the airport without a ticket, prompting extra screening.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke denied that Mr. Maduro was mistreated at John F. Kennedy International Airport when he was selected for an extra security check.

“He began to articulate his frustration with secondary screening right after he went through” a metal detector, Mr. Knocke said. “Port Authority officials confronted him when the situation became a ruckus.”

Mr. Maduro said he refused a request to go to another room for a strip-search. He told CNN that an official pushed him and yelled at him. He told reporters that the situation worsened when he explained he was the Venezuelan foreign minister and presented his diplomatic passport.

Mr. Maduro said authorities at one point ordered him and other officials to spread their arms and legs and be frisked, but he said they forcefully refused. He said officers also threatened to handcuff him.

“We responded with the dignity of Venezuelan revolutionaries … with strength,” Mr. Maduro said at Venezuela’s mission to the United Nations. “It’s a Nazi government, a racist government.”

If this is how U.S. authorities treat a foreign minister, he asked, “What won’t they do to Arab people for wearing a turban?”

He said his passport and ticket were seized and eventually returned, but the incident prevented him from flying home Saturday.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said it was a “regrettable incident” for which “the U.S. government has apologized.”

Fidel Castro, in his role as president of the Non-Aligned Movement, decried the incident in a statement, calling it a “vulgar provocation.”

The statement issued late Saturday said that the Cuban leader reacted “with indignation” and that the detention was an “unacceptable violation” of international norms regarding diplomats.

Cuba took over the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement Sept. 15. Its 118 members comprise two-thirds of the world’s nations, mostly developing countries.

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela — strained for several years — took a particularly confrontational turn last week, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, speaking at the annual U.N. General Assembly, called President Bush “the devil.”

U.S. officials often call Mr. Chavez a threat to democracy.

Mr. Maduro told reporters that the treatment of him and other Venezuelan officials seemed in part to be an “attempt to provoke us.”

He said about an hour and 20 minutes into his detention, he received a call from U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who apologized and said State Department officials were on their way to resolve the matter.

Five minutes later, State Department officials arrived and ordered Mr. Maduro and the others to spread their arms and legs to be frisked by police, he said.

Mr. Maduro said that Venezuela has lodged a protest with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and that the incident should be investigated so that those responsible are punished. He said those who detained him did not make any particular accusations.

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