"I said our special forces could take him out. Take him out could be a number of things including kidnapping," Robertson said on Wednesday of Venezuela's leader on his The 700 Club television programme.

 

"There are a number of ways of taking out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted," added Robertson.

 

Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and a leader of the Christian right that has provided strong support for President George W Bush, said on Monday of Chavez's fears of US assassination: "If he thinks we are trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it.

 

"We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."

Strained relations

Venezuela, which has had strained relations with the US since accusing Washington of backing a failed 2002 coup against Chavez, was not satisfied with US officials' dismissal of Robertson's remarks and said it wanted the White House to take legal action.

 

"This public call to assassinate a head of state, considered a crime by all modern legislation, is prosecutable by its very nature. That is what the civilised world is expecting of US authorities," the Venezuelan government said on Wednesday.

Chavez has often accused the US of plotting his overthrow or assassination, but Washington has denied involvement in the 2002 coup attempt.

Alongside Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana on Sunday, Chavez scoffed at the idea that he and Castro were destabilising troublemakers as seen by the Bush administration.
Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and a major supplier to the US.

Repudiation

The White House remained silent despite calls by Venezuela and religious leaders including the Rev Jesse Jackson for Bush to repudiate Robertson's remarks.

However, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday said political assassination was against the law and was not US policy.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Robertson's remarks "inappropriate" and said any ideas of hostile action against Chavez or Venezuela were "without fact and baseless".

Venezuelan officials said Robertson's remarks, while those of a private citizen, took on more significance given his ties to President Bush's Christian-right supporters.

"Mr Robertson has been one of this president's staunchest allies. His statement demands the strongest condemnation by the White House," Venezuela's ambassador to the United States Bernardo Alvarez said.

Chavez was elected in 1998, survived a referendum on his rule last year, and is seen to have a strong chance of winning re-election in 2006.