Venezuela’s Maduro Cracks Down On American Visitors

(Refiled for wider distribution)

CARACAS, Feb 28 (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Saturday his government had captured American citizens involved in “espionage activities,” and said U.S. citizens in the future will have to seek visas to come to the OPEC nation.

Speaking during a rally, he said his government will prohibit some U.S. officials from entering Venezuela in retaliation for a similar measure by the government of President Barack Obama against a group of Venezuelan public officials.

“We have captured some U.S. citizens in undercover activities, espionage, trying to win over people in towns along the Venezuelan coast,” he said, adding a U.S. citizen of Latin descent was captured in the convulsed border city of Tachira.

A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Caracas said he was unable to comment, citing a lack of any official diplomatic communication with the Venezuelan government.

The head of a Venezuelan evangelical organization on Friday said a group of four missionaries had been called in for questioning after participating in a medical assistance campaign in the coastal town of Ocumare de la Costa.

That pastor, Abdy Pereira, on Saturday said in a telephone interview that the four had left the country for Aruba after having been questioned for several days about alleged involvement in espionage. Pereira said the group had been coming to Venezuela 14 years and denied they were involved in espionage.

The United States and Venezuela have had tense diplomatic relations for more than a decade. Maduro recently accused Washington of helping stage a coup, a charge dismissed by the White House as ludicrous. (Reporting by Diego Ore, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Bernard Orr)