BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela -- The State Department expressed concern Thursday after two security agents traveling with the U.S. soccer team were stopped at a Venezuelan airport, temporarily stripped of their weapons and threatened with arrest.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told Venezuelan TV on Wednesday that two State Department security agents had the proper permit to carry handguns when they arrived in the western city of Maracaibo ahead of the team's June 28 opening match in the Copa America tournament.
"They were accused of violating several laws and then showed their diplomatic passports ... and a permit from the Defense Ministry to carry weapons into the country," Brownfield told Globovision. "A very long and intense argument ensued and they were threatened with being arrested."
The agents were held for two hours by immigration authorities who lectured them saying Americans may think they can flout local laws, but not in Venezuela, a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the agents' work.
Their weapons were initially confiscated but then were returned, the official said. The two agents were eventually allowed into the country.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack accused President Hugo Chavez's government of harassing the security agents.
"It is not completely surprising, coming from the Chavez government. They have sought various ways to harass U.S. government officials. ... So it's just another step in that direction," he said in Washington.
McCormack said Venezuela is "aware of the fact that we think that this is not the kind of behavior one would expect from a country with which you have diplomatic relations. We've made that clear."
Despite the deep political divide between Washington and Chavez, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley has had nothing but praise for the way his team was welcomed by organizers, and Chavez's father was in attendance at the Americans' 3-1 loss on Monday against Paraguay in Barinas, where he is governor.
Venezuela provides police security for all teams at the tournament, which runs through July 15.
But Brownfield said the additional security "is normal when a U.S. national team travels to another country."
Venezuela has not commented publicly on the airport incident. A spokesman traveling with the U.S. soccer team did not immediately answer an e-mail seeking comment.
The U.S. team was eliminated Wednesday from the 12-nation South American championships. The team was due to return home on a charter flight after its Thursday match against Colombia.