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Venezuela police help US envoy blocked by protest

Written by: Staff

CARACAS, Venezuela, Mar 23 (Reuters) Venezuelan police helped the US ambassador leave a Caracas building after a group of President Hugo Chavez's supporters blockaded him inside, US officials said.

Guarico State Gov Eduardo Manuitt, an ally of left-winger Chavez, said the protesters were peacefully demonstrating against US Ambassador William Brownfield after he visited opposition leaders and a chamber of commerce.

But US embassy officials said a group of about 100 mainly students with anti-US placards trapped the envoy inside the building for four hours while they burned tires and set fire to a US flag before police stepped in to clear the way.

''When the ambassador went to leave the building, he felt he could not because he believed the protests were potentially violent,'' said an embassy spokeswoman yesterday. ''The local authorities finally helped him out and he left for the airport.'' Relations between Venezuela and the United States have deteriorated sharply over Chavez's self-proclaimed socialist revolution and close alliances with traditional US foes like Cuba and Iran.

Chavez earlier this year expelled a US military attache he charged with spying and Washington responded by kicking out a Venezuelan diplomat.

Venezuela, the world's No 5 oil exporter, is still a key supplier of crude to the US market.

Washington has accused Chavez of becoming increasingly authoritarian at home and using Venezuela's vast oil wealth to spread an anti-democratic message through the region. Chavez often counters that US officials are backing attempts to topple his government.

Reuters DH VP0720

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