November 16, 2015 / 7:44 PM / 2 years ago

Venezuela pair held by U.S. for drugs were "kidnapped" -official

CARACAS, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Two men said to be relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro held in the United States on cocaine smuggling charges were "kidnapped," a senior member of the ruling Socialist Party said on Monday.

In the first direct comment on the case from a high-ranking Venezuelan official, National Assembly president and party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello also said it was an attempt by Washington to discredit the country's government right before a vote.

"The aim was to hurt the Bolivarian revolution in the midst of an election," he told local broadcaster Globovision, referring to the Dec. 6 vote for a new parliament.

Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29, were arrested in Haiti on Tuesday and flown to New York for indictment. They plan to plead not guilty at their next court appearance on Nov. 18, according to their lawyers.

The case follows announcements earlier this year of other U.S. investigations into alleged drugs and money-laundering crimes linked to Venezuelan officials and state institutions.

"I don't see it as an arrest. The truth is that a plane went to Haiti with six people, and two people were kidnapped," Cabello said. "The procedure was illegal, there were six people and they only arrested two, what the D.E.A. (Drug Enforcement Agency) has done is very irregular."

Neither Flores nor Maduro have commented directly on the case. Flores, who is standing for parliament in the December election, spoke on live TV on Monday during an event for senior citizens in her home state of Cojedes. She did not mention her nephews.

Cabello said he thought one of the men was not linked with the presidential family, though Venezuelan sources close to the family have said two are nephews of Maduro's wife Cilia Flores.

Some local media reports say one of them, Campos, was raised by Flores after his mother's death. Cabello said Flores and Maduro had no responsibility in the case.

"These are grown men who can do what they want in life," added Cabello, whom U.S. media have reported is also under investigation there for links to drug trafficking. "It's impossible you or I track everything our nephews are up to."

Venezuela's opposition has cast the case as further evidence of high-level corruption and demanded an investigation. (Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

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