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Interpol seeks arrest of Venezuelan opposition leader

CARACAS, Apr 24 – Interpol has issued an arrest warrant for Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales, who faces corruption charges in his country but fled to Peru to seek asylum, police said Thursday.

Venezuela wants Interpol to give Rosales’ case a maximum alert status for police worldwide, senior Venezuelan police official Wilmer Flores told a news conference.

A Venezuelan court on Wednesday issued an arrest warrant for Rosales, who failed to appear at an April 20 hearing on preventive detention pending his trial on graft charges.

Rosales, 56, is in Lima awaiting news of his asylum request. He denies the graft charges and says he is being politically persecuted by Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez.

Rosales was the main opposition candidate in the 2006 presidential election, which he lost to Chavez.

A former governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia and mayor of the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, Rosales sought asylum in Peru on Tuesday.

He had been hiding from Venezuelan authorities for the past month after the corruption charges — related to his 2002-2004 term as Zulia governor — were filed.

Rosales’ Peruvian attorney, prominent legislator Javier Valle Riestra, told AFP in Lima that Interpol cannot arrest his client because it "is forbidden from intervening in cases of politics, race or religion."

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Rosales however may have put his asylum case in jeopardy by blasting what he called the "totalitarian" Chavez regime in an interview with Venezuelan TV broadcast in Peru on Wednesday.

"We’re even more determined to continue to fight and face up to this totalitarian regime which flouts and tramples on the Venezuelan Constitution," Rosales said in the interview.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde quickly said that Rosales could not use his country as a political platform.

"Peru can’t be used as a political platform for any foreigner because that would violate the very nature of the refuge or political asylum that could be granted," Garcia Belaunde stressed.

Peruvian international affairs expert Ernesto Velit Granda agreed with Belaunde, adding that Rosales had violated a rule stating that an asylum petitioner should abstain from political activities.

Rosales "turned all his venom against the Venezuelan government without taking into account that he is using as a platform a country that has good relations with the government of Hugo Chavez," Velit told AFP.

Valle Riestra acknowledged to the government Andina news agency that Rosales’ TV interview was "a mistake, but that is not a reason to deny him asylum."

Rosales said he regretted his statements in an interview Thursday with Peru’s leading newspaper, El Comercio.

"I have not come to practice politics in Peru, nor do I plan to disturb relations between Venezuela and Peru," Rosales said.

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Rosales said that in Venezuela "I was going to be jailed," and that he fled to Peru "because they could kill me."

Chavez, who first took office in 1999 and survived a 47-hour coup in 2002, routinely accuses the opposition — and the US government — of trying to overthrow him and even have him killed.

Rosales ran afoul of Chavez after he was linked to the 2002 attempted coup against the leftist leader.

Chavez accused Rosales in October of plotting to assassinate him, and threatened to have him jailed.

The affair follows an Americas summit this month in which tense ties between the United States and Venezuela showed signs of warming, after President Barack Obama met amicably and for the first time anti-US leader Chavez.

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