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Venezuela Venezuelan VP calls US drug sanctions an 'attack'

El Aissami is the heir apparent to President Nicolas Maduro, and the US accusations against him triggered the latest row between Venezuela's socialist government and Washington.

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (right) and his Vice-President Tareck El Aissami participate in a Caracas rally on January 31, 2017 play

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (right) and his Vice-President Tareck El Aissami participate in a Caracas rally on January 31, 2017

(AFP/File)

Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami hit back Tuesday at the United States for labeling him a drug kingpin, calling Washington's sanctions on him a "vile attack."

El Aissami is the heir apparent to President Nicolas Maduro, and the US accusations against him triggered the latest row between Venezuela's socialist government and Washington, the "imperialist" power it loves to hate.

"I take this miserable and vile attack as recognition of my status as an anti-imperialist revolutionary," El Aissami wrote on Twitter.

"We must concentrate on the revolutionary government's priorities: economic recovery and growth and guaranteeing PEACE and social happiness."

The US Treasury Department on Monday accused El Aissami and an ally, businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello, of being major drug traffickers and froze their US assets.

It said El Aissami protected and oversaw large shipments of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States while serving as the country's interior minister and governor of Aragua state.

El Aissami was allegedly in the pay of Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia to protect shipments, and coordinated them with Mexico's violent Los Zetas cartel, the Treasury said.

"Let's not let these vile provocations distract us. Our main job is to accompany Nicolas Maduro in (Venezuela's) economic recovery," El Aissami tweeted.

He added a shoutout to late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor and the man who launched Venezuela on the path of socialist "revolution" in 1999.

"Long live CHAVEZ!!" he wrote.

Next in line

Tareck El Aissami play

Tareck El Aissami

(AFP)

It is the latest US drugs case against prominent figures tied to the Venezuelan government.

In November, a federal court in New York convicted two of Maduro's nephews of drug trafficking.

And the current interior minister, army general Nestor Reverol, was indicted in the US in August for cocaine trafficking.

The new accusations cast a dark shadow over El Aissami, 42, who became the troubled South American country's vice president on January 4.

El Aissami, who was born in Merida state, served as a minister under Chavez.

He made a name for himself in Venezuela by cracking down on drug gangs. But he has also helped Maduro take action against the political opposition.

In a January 31 decree, Maduro granted him expansive powers to seize property and approve ministers' budgets.

Venezuela is lurching through an economic nightmare of food shortages and hyperinflation brought on by low prices for its key export, oil.

Maduro, whose popularity has fallen to 20 percent, is fending off opposition attempts to oust him.

He blames the economic crisis on what he calls a capitalist conspiracy backed by Washington. Opponents blame the failure of an oil-dependent socialist economic model.

El Aissami is next in line in the event Maduro is forced to resign or removed in a recall referendum.

Private jet, luxury condos

Venezuelan opposition activists rally in Caracas, on February 12, 2017 play

Venezuelan opposition activists rally in Caracas, on February 12, 2017

(AFP)

The US Treasury said the sanctions were part of a multi-year investigation and unrelated to El Aissami's recent promotion to vice president.

"The message in this designation is not a political one," said a senior US administration official. "It is about international narcotics trafficking."

Thirteen companies belonging to Lopez Bello were also listed for sanctions.

The US called the businessman a "key frontman" and money launderer for El Aissami.

It did not say whether it is seeking the arrest and extradition of either man, but the official said the evidence against them was strong.

The sanctions freeze their assets on US territory, and also ban US citizens and entities from doing business with either man or the 13 companies.

Officials said they had frozen assets worth tens of millions of dollars, including a private jet and what appeared to be several luxury condos in Miami controlled by Lopez Bello.

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