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Lawmakers, US Officials Criticize Venezuela in Congressional Hearing

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his government have come in for more criticism during a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday. State Department officials testified about what they say is evidence of Venezuelan support for terrorist groups, and the failure of Venezuela to respond to U.S. efforts to build cooperation on anti-terrorist efforts.

Venezuela was added earlier this year to the list of countries the U.S. State Department designates as not cooperating fully with anti-terrorist efforts.

Republican Congressman Ed Royce said evidence shows Venezuela maintains close ties with terrorist groups and countries supporting them.

"Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez has tolerated terrorists on its soil and has forged close relationships with officially-designated state sponsors of terrorism, for example Cuba, Iran and North Korea," said Ed Royce.

Royce also sites reports of Venezuelan support for Colombian narco-terrorists, and the use of Venezuelan territory as a safe-haven.

Lawmakers are particularly distressed with Venezuela's failure to crack down on forging of passports and other documents.

Frank Urbancic is State Department Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counter-terrorism:

"Most worrisome, Venezuelan government officials direct the issuance of documents to ineligible individuals to advance political and foreign policy agendas," said Frank Urbancic. "As a result we are detaining at our borders increasing numbers of third country aliens carrying falsified documents or fraudulently-issued Venezuelan documents."

U.S. officials say a major outcome of all of this is to place ordinary Venezuelans under greater scrutiny.

Efforts to construct an anti-terrorism dialogue with Caracas have been largely unsuccessful, amid increasing concern about President Chavez' outreach to Iran and North Korea.

Charles Shapiro is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs:

"Over the past three years, the U.S. embassy in Caracas has submitted roughly 130 written requests for different types of biographical or immigration-related information on potential terrorist suspects, and to date has not received one single substantive response," said Charles Shapiro.

Key areas of concern for lawmakers include the Chavez government's intensifying ties with Iran and opposition to sending the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council, as well as fund-raising activities by Hezbollah in Venezuela.

California Democrat Brad Sherman says President Chavez should address these concerns, but also urges U.S. patience:

"The U.S. must have patience in dealing with the Chavez government," noted Brad Sherman. "Those who talk about taking Chavez down should recognize that it is up to the Venezuelan people to decide who will be their leader."

U.S. officials reiterated Washington's opposition to Venezuela obtaining a two year non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, something the Chavez government says would help it represent the interests of developing countries.

The officials noted that Venezuela's designation as a non-cooperating country in the fight against terrorism, will result in the cutoff of U.S. military equipment sales on October 1.