BOGOTA, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government is protecting suspected members of al-Qaida and other militant groups by providing them with false identities, former officials of his Interior Ministry told United Press International.
Gen. Marcos Ferreira, who headed the Departamento de Extranjeria, or DIEX, which is responsible for keeping records on foreigners, told UPI thousands of fraudulent Venezuelan identities were issued to members of known terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, on orders from top officials in Chavez's government.
By tracing redundant ID numbers, intelligence officials said 3,799 fraudulent documents were issued between 2000 and 2002. The largest batch of 2,520 were given to Colombians and the second-largest category of 279 went to individuals of Middle Eastern origin, invariably described in Venezuelan Interior Ministry computer records as Syrians.
Other Venezuelan security officials told UPI the country's internal security service, Direccion de Inteligencia, Seguridad y Prevencion, or DISIP, was protecting suspected members of Osama bin Laden's organization and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.
Ferreira said he forwarded an FBI request for surveillance on Hakim Mohammed al-Diab Fatah -- a Venezuelan-Arab who is believed to be linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington -- to his bosses in the Interior Ministry. Although Venezuelan authorities denied any knowledge of the suspect, Ferreira said DISIP picked up al-Diab Fatah directly from the plane on which he arrived from the United States on March 8, 2002. He wasn't taken through any immigration checks so his identity could be laundered, he said.
Security officials, meanwhile, told UPI Afghan mullahs connected to the Taliban also entered Venezuela in 2002. Their local contact was Tariq Williams Saab, who heads the ruling Venezuelan Revolutionary Movement's International Relations Committee. He is also suspected to be involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Saab is said to have met with two members of the Irish Republican Army who visited the country en route to Colombia where they were held in 2001 for their links with left-wing rebel groups in that country.
Since his election in 1998, Chavez has irked the United States with his close ties to countries such as Cuba, Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Libya.
In August 2000, he became the first foreign head of state to visit Saddam in Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. His close ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro have raised concerns that he wants to turn Venezuela into a Marxist-style nation. Cuban advisers occupy key posts in Venezuela's security services and Colombian guerrilla groups maintain important facilities in Havana, the U.S. State Department says.
More recently, intelligence reports say, Libyan security personnel have been brought in to help manage Venezuela's newly nationalized oil company, PDVSA.
In a report last week, U.S. News and World Report said Chavez's government was aiding militant groups both in Latin America and elsewhere. Chavez immediately denied the claim.
"This is sewage," he told reporters in Caracas. "It's disgusting."
The Venezuelan leader's relations with the United States are frosty at best. He was deposed in a coup in April 2002, but quickly returned to power. He accused Washington of trying to oust him; the United States denies this.
Chavez is also battling attempts by critics at home to vote him out of office. They accuse him of cracking down on freedoms and curtailing human rights and are gathering signatures for a referendum that could be held in February 2004.
Allegations that Chavez's government supports left-wing rebel groups in neighboring Colombia are not new.
Venezuelan security officials say top ministers repeatedly ordered them to assist members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN. The U.S. State Department regards both organizations as terrorist groups.
"One of the first things that I was ordered to do when I became chief of DIEX was to legalize the entry of five undocumented Colombians on the grounds that they had assisted in ransoming kidnapped Venezuelans," Ferreira told UPI.
The general said he was asked to repeat the procedure on 35 different occasions by Interior Minister Rodriguez Chacin during the time he was DIEX head between 2000 and 2002.
Showing official records in his possession, Ferreira said individual cases he was instructed to handle had special priority because they concerned top members of these organizations who needed to travel to Cuba. DISIP regularly escorted guerrilla leaders from the Colombian border to Caracas international airport where they collected forged passports to board flights to Havana, he said.
Ferreira identified some of the suspected terrorists who traveled through Venezuela: Canas Serrano, a member of the ELN high command wanted by Interpol for a bombing that killed 84 people; Marcote Fragoso, alias Aldo Manuel, commander of FARC's 59th Front on Colombia's border province of Guajira who is now operating as an international representative for the guerrilla group; Ana Belinda Macias Arismendi, a reputed money launderer for the guerrillas.
Ferreira said fingerprints on the identity document number V12438823 issued to Macias when she crossed into Venezuela from Colombia through the border post of San Antonio del Tachira didn't even match hers.
"It was at that point that I decided that I couldn't go on doing the government's dirty work," he said.
He says he alerted U.S. intelligence agencies before resigning in April 2002. Interior Ministry sources said he was replaced by a top Cuban intelligence officer.
John Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, denied any knowledge of the allegations, but diplomatic sources said the U.S. Embassy in Caracas discouraged direct contact with Venezuelan rebel officers for fear of jeopardizing efforts to secure an agreement to allow the referendum oh the Chavez presidency.
Colombian authorities, however, crosschecked fraudulent Venezuelan identity-card holders listed by Ferreira, confirming their backgrounds. Police sources in Bogotá told UPI Julio Quintero Gomez, with Venezuelan identity number V81895307, was on file with Colombia's Interior Ministry as an ELN urban guerrilla column member; Ramon Quintero ( V81895573) was identified as a member of the ELN national committee, and Alberto Diaz Sanchez (V81895586) was said to be a member of a narco-trafficking ring.
Other officials say Chavez is using the Colombian as a block vote should elections be held in Venezuela.
Ernesto Amezquita Camacho, a Colombian lawyer, who works in Caracas as an adviser to the Venezuelan Justice Ministry told UPI he ran an association to settle Colombian refugees in Venezuela and that he helped bring in Colombian labor to break last year's strike against the Chavez government.
Venezuelan opposition leaders allege thousands of Colombian guerrillas have been naturalized illegally to swell the ranks of Chavez's party militias, the Circulos Bolivarianos, and act as a bloc vote the government can mobilize in future elections.