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US bars some Venezuelan officials accused of rights abuse

Riot policemen are deployed during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on June 3, 2014 in Caracas
Riot policemen are deployed during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on June 3, 2014 in Caracas

The United States has slapped travel bans on a number of Venezuelan government officials accused of involvement in human rights abuses, a senior US diplomat said Wednesday, amid growing tensions between the two countries.

In Caracas, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua dismissed the move as an act of desperation in response to his government's closer ties with China.

Venezuela was hit by four months of anti-government protests earlier this year in which 43 people were killed as security forces sought to quell the unrest.

"Government security forces have responded to these protests in many instances with arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force," said deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

There have also been "repeated efforts to repress legitimate expression of dissent through judicial intimidation, to limit freedom of the press, and to silence members of the political opposition."

A Venezuelan oppostition activist gestures during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, state of Tachira, on June 2, 2014
A Venezuelan oppostition activist gestures during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, state of Tachira, on June 2, 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry had therefore "decided to impose restrictions on travel to the United States by a number of Venezuelan government officials who have been responsible for or complicit in such human rights abuses," Harf said in a statement.

While Harf refused to publicly identify who had been targeted, another State Department official said the restrictions included "individuals at various levels of government, from government ministers and presidential advisors to judicial officials, law enforcement and military officials."

The surprise move comes only days after Washington was angered by the release in Aruba of a former Venezuelan intelligence chief wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges.

Authorities on the Dutch island arrested retired major general Hugo Carvajal last week, but freed him days later allegedly after coming under pressure from Caracas.

Harf said the visa bans were "directed at individuals responsible for human rights violations and not at the Venezuelan nation or its people."

A picture released by the Venezuelan Presidential Press Office shows President Nicolas Maduro (R) and retired Major General Hugo Carvajal in Caracas on July 27, 2014
A picture released by the Venezuelan Presidential Press Office shows President Nicolas Maduro (R) and retired Major General Hugo Carvajal in Caracas on July 27, 2014

"Our message is clear: those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States," she added.

"With this step we underscore our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses."

At a news conference in Caracas, Jaua said the Venezuelan government had not been notified of the US decision but said "these are desperate actions against us."

"It's one more reprisal by the government of the United States against the role that Venezuela plays in a new world, with an independent, sovereign Venezuela," he said.

He attributed the timing of the announcement to a visit to Caracas last week by China's President Xi Jinping and its hosting this week of a meeting of the South American trading bloc Mercosur.

Washington has long sought to improve ties with Caracas which soured after leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez came to power in the South American nation.

There had been initial hopes of a fresh start to relations following his death in March of last year.

But Chavez's handpicked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, has launched repeated accusations against the US of plotting his overthrow and to kill him.

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