Facing a 15 August referendum that could potentially unseat him from power, Chavez said, "Hugo Chavez and George W. Bush will face off in the 15 August referendum."

He said Venezuela's political battle would play out between Bush, "who wants to take over this country, and myself, who is prepared to do whatever is necessary to defend the country".

If 3.75 million voters - the number who voted for Chavez in 2000 - vote against him on 15 August, he will be constitutionally forced to step down and call for a new presidential election.

Chavez, a leftist-populist former paratrooper, was ousted from power in April 2002 in a short-lived military coup, which fell apart when his old army unit rallied other military units to his defence.

Repeated accusations

Washington had initially been pleased with the coup and moved quickly to recognise and deal with the new transitional government comprised of opposition business and political leaders.

The White House position led Chavez to declare that "the Bush administration was alone in the world when it endorsed the overthrow of my government in 2002. It is my hope that this time the Bush administration will respect our republican democracy".

Although Washington insisted it had not bankrolled the coup or even had advance knowledge of it, Chavez remained steadfast in his repeated accusations that the US was instigating a rebellion.

He also blamed the US for influencing a strike in the country's oil industry in early 2003.

Venezuela is considered a vital US oil supplier.