ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) - Paraguay's new president on Thursday backed his defense minister's claim that Venezuela's foreign minister tried to convince the country's military leaders to support former President Fernando Lugo in the face of a Senate impeachment trial.
Defense Minister Maria Liz Arnold says the Venezuelan official met with a group of Paraguayan army, navy and air force brass on the day Lugo was ousted and asked them to back the former Roman Catholic bishop-turned-president. She says the officers declined to challenge the decision by Paraguay's Senate to oust the leftist Lugo last Friday.
Venezuelan officials declined to comment on the allegation.
"The minister's complaint is absolutely true," President Federico Franco told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
"The decisions were taken to show by example that here we don't tolerate military men who want to turn themselves into (policy) deciders or who accept recommendations or suggestions from foreign countries," Franco said, in an apparent reference to his dismissal of Gen. Angel Vallovera, whom Paraguay's defense minister had said was instrumental in organizing the meeting.
Asked whether the alleged meeting constituted a bid by Venezuela, which is led by leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, to meddle in the internal affairs of other nations, Franco responded glibly, "you are so intelligent that I couldn't have said it more clearly or succinctly myself."
In her comments at a press conference Thursday, Arnold said the alleged meeting between Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and the Paraguayan military brass took place last Friday in the government palace, just 200 yards (meters) from the Senate building, where the leftist Lugo was being booted out in a fast-track trial that lasted only hours. He was found guilty of "poor performance of his duties" for failing to avoid a clash between police and landless peasants that left 17 people dead.
Though pro-Lugo protests were held during last week's impeachment process, they largely faded after he was dismissed and left the presidential palace.
Some foreign governments, including that of Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil among others, have complained about the swiftness with which Lugo was impeached, saying it didn't allow him an adequate defense. But Franco has defended the procedures that propelled him to the country's top position.
"I categorically reject allegations of a legislative coup or an institutional break," he said.
The impeachment "was carried out freely, broadcast live to the country and to the world, there were no scrapes, nobody had even their left pinky finger scraped, no one at all."
Ahead of the two-day Mercosur summit being held in Mendoza, Argentina, on Thursday and Friday, some analysts had anticipated the South American trade bloc's other member states _ Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay _ might propose sanctions against Paraguay in retaliation for the ouster.
But Brazil's foreign minister told journalists that sanctions were unlikely and that the bloc would likely settle on prolonging Paraguay's suspension.
Franco said the current ban on his government's attending the meeting of the Mercosur South American trade bloc was already punishment enough.
"This political sanction, god will help us manage it and will give us the wisdom to soon find a solution to this problem," he said.
Again and again during the extended interview, Franco returned to the calm reigning in his landlocked nation.
Paraguay is now "living in a state of harmony," he said. "The country is absolutely normalized.
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