Venezuela orders US religious group out

Caracas, Venezuela - Venezuela has given a US evangelical missionary group a 90-day deadline to leave indigenous communities after President Hugo Chavez accused them of spying.

Chavez, a former soldier increasingly at odds with the US administration, last month charged the Florida-based New Tribes Mission with working for the CIA and abusing indigenous groups. He then demanded they leave Venezuela.

A government resolution published in the official government gazette on Tuesday revoked the permit that allowed the New Tribes missionaries to carry out evangelical work with indigenous groups for more than 40 years in Venezuela.

The order called for "New Tribes Mission members to leave Puerto Ayacucho, San Fernando de Atabapo, San Juan de Manapiare, Corobal, Guajaribo and Platanal, as well as any other area with indigenous communities."

Chavez ordered the New Tribes Mission out of the country a few days after conservative US preacher Pat Robertson accused the left-leaning president of funding Osama Bin Laden and seeking out nuclear material from Iran.

Chavez dismissed those charges as ridiculous.

Soon after Chavez ordered the New Tribes expulsion, about 200 Mormon missionaries abandoned Venezuela because of what US officials said were security worries. Church officials said they reassigned missionaries due to visa difficulties.

Since his election in 1998, Chavez had sought to introduce a self-described socialist revolution in Venezuela, but his close ties with Cuba and harsh criticism of Washington have caused conflict with US officials.

Venezuela, the world's number five oil exporter, remained a key supplier to the US market but Washington portrayed Chavez as a menace who used his country's oil wealth to fund subversive groups and undermine democracy.