Paraguay-Venezuela row deepening

ASUNCION, Paraguay, July 6 (UPI) -- Paraguay's diplomatic row with Venezuela is deepening amid accusations the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seeking to overturn political change in Asuncion.

Landlocked Paraguay is ruled by President Federico Franco after Congress last month impeached and removed his predecessor, Fernando Lugo, a move condemned by Paraguay's neighbors. Franco is yet to be recognized as the new president by neighbors of the landlocked state as well as regional organizations Mercosur and Unasur.


Differences over how to handle the developing crisis in Paraguay widened after regional leaders met in a summit in Mendoza, Argentina, last week. But Asuncion pointedly accused Venezuela of interfering in its affairs and withdrew its ambassador in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.

Paraguay accuses Venezuela of trying to persuade Paraguayan military leadership to intervene and reinstall Lugo as president. In a diplomatic flurry last week, several neighboring countries including Venezuela withdrew their diplomatic staff from Asuncion and in some cases shut their embassies.

New Paraguayan Defense Minister Maria Liz Garcia accused Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro of participating in a meeting with senior Paraguayan military officials before the Paraguayan Congress met to vote for Lugo's removal. Maduro denied the charge.


Franco aides responded by releasing a videotape recording that purposed to show Maduro walking down a corridor in the presidential palace in Asuncion. Other images showed Paraguayan military chiefs but the videotape recordings of the alleged meeting did not show Maduro and the Paraguayan generals together.

Maduro was in Asuncion for a scheduled meeting of the foreign ministers from the member countries of the Union of South American states but it was not clear if his official agenda included meetings with the Paraguayan military top brass.

The day after the alleged meeting Paraguayan congress voted to impeach Lugo and remove him from the presidency. The new government says Franco is an interim head of state and that it will hold presidential elections in April 2013, as originally scheduled.

An Organization of American States delegation that visited Paraguay after Lugo's removal and Franco's ascent to power is due to release Monday the results of its fact-finding mission.

Lugo found himself pitted against congressional foes after 17 riot deaths, caused when police clashed with squatters in a simmering dispute over unauthorized housing.

Mercosur backed Lugo and a statement from the group condemned his removal as a "legislative, congressional or institutional coup," in which the former president was denied time to defend himself against an "express" impeachment vote.


The Union of South American Nations also protested Lugo's removal. Unasur issued a statement that Lugo's ouster didn't respect due legal process.

Paraguay also says Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have ganged up on the new government and want Paraguay expelled from the OAS, which has headquarters in Washington.

The political crisis has thrown Paraguay's dysfunctional economy into further disarray, not helped by Venezuela's decision to cut off oil supplies that Paraguay receives on reduced and deferred payment basis.

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