President Hugo Chavez threatened on Saturday to imprison the popular governor of Venezuela's western Zulia state for allegedly plotting to kill him.
Chavez leveled the accusation against Manuel Rosales _ one of Venezuela's four opposition governors just weeks before Nov. 23 gubernatorial and municipal elections.
Rosales, the two-time governor of Zulia, is running for mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second largest city. He ran against Chavez for the presidency in 2006, but Chavez handily defeated him with nearly 63 percent of the vote.
"I have decided to make Manuel Rosales a prisoner," Chavez told a group of business leaders in Maracaibo. "He cannot continue in office. ... He is one of those who wants to see me dead." Chavez did not give further details such as who would arrest Rosales or what charges he would face.
Rosales denied the accusations later Saturday, calling the Chavez government a "nest of gangsters and mafia leaders" with "clearly demonstrated" ties to Colombian guerrillas.
"I respect (Chavez) as president but he has not respected me as governor," Rosales told television station Globovision. Since taking office in 1999, Chavez has frequently accused his opponents of conspiring with Washington to assassinate him. But government and opposition rhetoric is becoming even more heated ahead of November's vote on 23 state governorships and 300 municipal posts.
In recent weeks, Chavez's allies have accused Rosales of planning the president's assassination _ though officials have not presented any evidence implicating the governor in such a plot. Chavez said on Saturday "it's no coincidence" that authorities arrested two people last month in Rosales' Zulia state in an alleged plot to shoot down the presidential plane with an anti-tank weapon. He called Rosales a corrupt gangster "worse than Don Corleone" of the "Godfather" movies.
Chavez also said concerns for his safety led him to cancel a trip to El Salvador for next week's Ibero-American Summit because President Tony Saca's administration could not guarantee his safety. Rosales has accused Chavez allies of making unfounded allegations as an electoral ploy to distract Venezuelans from pressing problems such as double-digit inflation and rampant crime. Opposition leaders have also criticized a decision by the country's top anti-corruption official to bar 272 candidates from running in the upcoming elections because authorities suspect them of graft. Critics say the move sidelined popular Chavez opponents. Last week a Venezuelan court reopened a case against a Caracas mayor suspected of involvement in violence during a short-lived coup attempt against Chavez in 2002. Henrique Capriles called the timing of the decision an attempt to sabotage his current campaign for governor of Miranda state.