Venezuela's Chavez threatens to eject U.S. ambassador

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador Sunday, accusing him of "provoking" a confrontation two days earlier by visiting a poor pro-government area where protesters beat on his car and chased his convoy.

Chavez's ultimatum came in response to Washington's warning of "severe diplomatic consequences" if anything similar should happen again to U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield. His threat appeared to take long-standing tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. to a new extreme.

The dispute arose over a visit that Brownfield made Friday to a ballpark in Caracas' poor Coche neighborhood, a Chavez stronghold, where he donated baseball equipment to a youth league. As his convoy left, Chavez supporters hurled eggs and tomatoes, and chased after his car on motorcycles.

"If you continue provoking us, go prepare your bags because I'm going to throw you out of here," Chavez warned Brownfield during a nationally televised speech Sunday. "I'm going to throw you out of Venezuela if you continue provoking the Venezuelan people."

Chavez condemned the crowd of protesters for pelting Brownfield's car, saying his government "rejects any kind of aggression." But he suggested Brownfield sought a confrontation by failing to advise authorities adequately of his travel plans and venturing into a poor neighborhood where his presence was unwelcome.

Brownfield has regularly traveled into pro-Chavez slums to meet community leaders and hand out donations, which have included funds for libraries and children's homes.

Chavez criticized the gifts of baseball gear. "He showed up at a baseball field in Coche to do what? Demagoguery, giving away some gloves, some little balls ... He shouldn't do it."

The Venezuelan leader said if the U.S. were to take diplomatic measures against his government, he would do the same.

"If the Washington government takes some measure against Venezuela because of provocations, you will be responsible. You will have to leave here, sir. I will declare you persona non grata in Venezuela," Chavez said Sunday.

The protest during Brownfield's excursion Friday was the third time in three weeks that the ambassador has been met by protests. Earlier, demonstrators burned tires and torched an American flag.

Chavez accused Washington of seeking to escalate tensions and threatening Venezuela.

"With your imprudence and provocation, you could one of these days cause a grave incident because (you walk) around with people who are armed, with security forces," Chavez said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Salome Hernandez said the embassy refused to respond to "hypothetical" scenarios but added, "the ambassador will continue to travel and we will not be intimidated."

Chavez said Brownfield failed to advise the local mayor's office or the foreign ministry of his travel plans. Hernandez said the embassy is not required to advise those institutions but that it takes adequate precautions by regularly coordinating with law enforcement authorities for such events, reports the AP.

I.L.