Chavez's angry insistence came after the US ambassador Charles Shapiro met Venezuelan electoral officials, who are to decide on whether to allow a referendum on the leftist leader's rule.

"This is a sovereign nation, ambassador, and you must respect this country and your government must respect this country," Chavez said during his regular Sunday television address.

"What prerogative does Ambassador Shapiro have to visit them, and what's worse, to visit them before the national authorities, before representatives of the National Assembly?" Chavez asked.

Shapiro, whom the Venezuelan government has criticised several times before, invited Chavez's ire after he held talks with the National Electoral Council. After the meeting, Shapiro volunteered US technical assistance for the poll if required.

Bitter relations

Relations between Chavez and Washington have been bitter, particularly after the Venezuelan president sought to improve ties with countries such as Cuba and Libya.

"This is a sovereign nation, ambassador, and you must respect this country and your government must respect this country"

Hugo Chavez,
president,
Venezuela

Chavez, a former paratrooper first elected in 1998, and who survived a coup last year, is facing a determined opposition campaign to oust him at the ballot box.

Several countries including the US have backed the referendum to end more than a year of political conflict. Venezuela's constitution allows for a poll halfway through the president's term, a point Chavez reached last August.

Last month, the Supreme Court named a new National Electoral Council to rule on the validity of three million signatures that the opposition presented to press for referendum and to organize a possible vote.

The council is expected to announce its decision this week. But Chavez contests the validity of the opposition-sponsored petition, saying its replete with forgeries.