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Aruba to hold Venezuelan official seeking immunity

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ORANJESTAD, Aruba (AP) — A judge in Aruba ruled Friday that the highest-ranking Venezuelan official ever arrested on a U.S. warrant must remain behind bars pending an extradition request on drug-trafficking charges, prompting Venezuela to cancel flights to the Dutch Caribbean island in retaliation.

Hugo Carvajal, a former head of Venezuelan military intelligence and close confidant of the late president Hugo Chavez, was arrested upon arriving at Aruba's airport, officials said Thursday. Venezuelan authorities said Carvajal had been named that country's consul to Aruba and enjoyed diplomatic immunity, a claim denied by an island official who said he had not yet been accredited by the Netherlands, which runs foreign affairs for its former colony.

On Friday, a judge in Aruba ruled that Carvajal does not have immunity and must remain in custody until there's a decision in his U.S. extradition case, according to chief prosecutor Peter Blanken.

The ruling exacerbated friction between Venezuela and the island just 15 miles off its coast.

Otmar Oduber, Aruba's minister of transportation and tourism, said in a televised interview that flights to and from Venezuela had been canceled. Hundreds of Venezuelan tourists were stranded at Aruba's international airport, and Oduber said the government was checking whether they could fly Arubans out of Venezuela through Colombia.

Airport officials in Venezuela confirmed that one flight was canceled.

The cancelations are an economic blow to Aruba because Venezuela represents its second largest tourism market. The cancelations also apply to the Dutch territories of St. Maarten, Curacao, Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius.

Curacao's government also said Venezuela would no longer supply petroleum to Curacao or Bonaire but urged people not to panic, noting it had a four-month supply available.

U.S. authorities allege that Carvajal is one of several high-ranking Venezuelan military and law enforcement officials who provided a haven to major drug traffickers from neighboring Colombia and helped them export large amounts of U.S. bound cocaine through Venezuela.

His surprise arrest has cast a spotlight on what's known in Venezuela as the "Cartel of the Suns," referring to rogue, high-ranking military officers believed to have grown rich from drug-running. Top Venezuelan officers wear sun insignia on their uniforms.

Together with the unsealing Thursday of a drug indictment against two other Venezuelan officials, Carvajal's arrest will likely also ratchet up tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela's socialist government, which frequently accuses Washington of conspiring against it.

President Nicolas Maduro had threatened to retaliate against Aruba, unless Carvajal is freed. The president likened Carvajal's arrest to an "ambush" and "kidnapping" that violates international law and Venezuelan sovereignty.

"We won't let our honor or that of any Venezuelan be sullied by campaigns orchestrated from the empire," Maduro said in a speech Thursday night.

Carvajal's attorney, Chris Lejuez, had told The Associated Press that his client denies all charges against him. He did not return a message seeking comment following the ruling.

Carvajal, who earned Chavez's trust as a military cadet in the early 1980s, has long been a target of U.S. law enforcement.

In 2008, he was blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury along with two other senior military officials for allegedly providing weapons and fake Venezuelan identity papers to Marxist rebels in Colombia so they could travel easily across the border. The U.S. has classified the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as a terrorist organization and has indicted its top leadership on narcotics charges.

While Chavez always denied that officials in his government were aiding the FARC, documents from a computer belonging to a senior rebel commander and seized by Colombian forces in a 2008 air raid seemed to place Carvajal front and center in what appears to have been a fluid relationship between the rebels and Venezuela's military.

In one message from January 2007, the rebel leader known by his alias Ivan Marquez recounts for fellow commanders how he met with Carvajal and another army general and was promised delivery of 20 "very powerful bazookas."

The indictment against Carvajal doesn't discuss ties to the FARC. Instead, it focuses on payments he and other senior military officials allegedly received from Wilber Varela, one of Colombia's biggest kingpins before his 2008 murder in Venezuela.

Carvajal was being held in the central town of Santa Cruz in Aruba, where Friday's hearing took place.

Carvajal's arrest follows the indictment unsealed in southern Florida this week against two other Venezuelan officials for allegedly working to protect another Colombian drug trafficker.

According to a criminal complaint, police officer Rodolfo McTurk was serving as the director of Interpol in Venezuela when he confronted an unnamed trafficker arrested in February 2009. After negotiations, the trafficker allegedly agreed to pay McTurk $400,000 in cash immediately and $75,000 a month to be released and allowed to continue his activities.

Three traffickers told a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that the operations could not have continued without McTurk's help.

The Colombian trafficker was later arrested again and extradited to the U.S.

McTurk is believed to be residing in Venezuela but his co-defendant, Benny Palmeri-Bacchi, was reportedly arrested last week trying to enter the U.S. with his family for a vacation at Disney World. A former judge and attorney, Palmeri-Bacchi pleaded not guilty at a Thursday hearing.

A spokeswoman for the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case.

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Bogota, Colombia, and Dilma Arends Geerman from Oranjestad, Aruba. AP writers Christine Armario in Miami and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico contributed to this report.

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