Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel on Tuesday said Venezuela was studying its legal options, adding that how Washington responds to Robertson's comments would put its anti-terrorism policy to the test.

"The ball is in the US court, after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country," Rangel said.

 

"It's a huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country, there are entirely terrorist statements like those."

Chavez said while concluding an official visit to Cuba that he had yet to be informed of Robertson's comments.

Chavez, whose comments were carried live on Venezuelan state TV before his planned departure for Jamaica, said when asked by reporters at Havana's airport that he did not have information on the matter but would respond that such a person "should talk about life" and not death.


"I haven't read anything. We haven't heard anything about him," Chavez said, when asked in general terms about a US religious leader having said Chavez should be killed.

 

"I don't even know who that person is."

US response

The US government, meanwhile, distanced itself from Robertson's comments.

 

Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, appearing at a Pentagon news conference, said when asked: "Our department does not do that kind of thing. It's against the law."
 

Robertson said on the Christian Broadcast Network's The 700 Club on Monday: "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."

"We do not need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator," he continued. "It is a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."

US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld:
Assassination is against the law

Chavez has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of US President George Bush, accusing the US of conspiring to topple his government and possibly backing plots to assassinate him.

 

US officials have called the accusations ridiculous.

"You know, I do not know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we are trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it," Robertson said.

"It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war ... and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

The US is the top buyer of Venezuelan crude, but Chavez has made it clear he wants to decrease the country's dependence on the US market by finding other buyers.

Religious reaction

Other religious leaders in the US reacted strongly to Robertson's comments.


"It's absolutely chilling to hear a religious leader call for the murder of any political leader, no matter how much he disagrees with such a leader's policies or practices," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Robertson's remarks appear likely to further aggravate tensions between Washington and Caracas. Chavez has repeatedly claimed that US officials are plotting to oust or kill him - charges US officials have denied.


Chavez has irritated US officials with his fiery rhetoric against American "imperialism" and his increasingly close ties to US enemies such as Cuba and Iran.

He says he is leading Venezuela towards socialism and, in a visit to Cuba this week, praised Fidel Castro's system as a "revolutionary democracy".


Ramifications

Speaking about the legal ramifications of Robertson's words, Rangel said "this is a very delicate situation".

 

"There is a legal measure in the United States that condemns and punishes statements of this nature," the vice-president said, referring generally to laws dealing with television broadcasts.

 

"The ball is in the US court, after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country"

Jose Vicente Rangel,
Venezuelan Vice President

"The response from the US government and its legal institutions, to a message of this kind by a supposed religious spokesman calling for a head of state's assassination - because 'a war is too costly and it's cheaper to kill him'  puts to the test the US government's anti-terrorist discourse," Rangel said.

The vice-president also said the Organisation of American States could take up the case, saying an inter-American anti-terrorism accord includes provisions against inciting others to kill.

Venezuelan officials said earlier this year they had tightened Chavez's presidential security in response to unspecified threats.

 

Rangel said Robertson's call for Chavez to be killed "justifies and explains the Venezuelan government's concern".