Venezuela Threatens 'Worthy Response' to U.S. Navy Operations Near Coast

Venezuela's defense minister has warned that the country's armed forces are ready to respond to any American provocation after a U.S. warship came within 30 miles of the country's coast on Tuesday.

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze conducted what U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) described as a "freedom of navigation" operation this week to challenge "an excessive maritime claim" by Venezuela.

SOUTHCOM said the warship did not enter the 12-nautical mile zone internationally recognized as Venezuela's territorial limit, but the operation prompted condemnation from Caracas regardless.

SOUTHCOM commander Navy Admiral Craig Faller said such operations would continue and that freedom of navigation missions "are the bedrock of ongoing security efforts, and essential to regional peace and stability."

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez claimed Wednesday that the mission was a provocation and warned that further action would be met with "a worthy response," according to the EFE news agency.

Lopez said Faller showed "supine ignorance" of maritime law by ordering the freedom of navigation operation. "We have a constitutional mission, we are not playing," he added.

According to Venezuela's El Carabobeño newspaper, Lopez said SOUTHCOM scored an "empty victory" with its operation. "The more attacks, the more united they will see us," he added.

Tuesday's operation was the first since the U.S. launched its Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations in April, designed to stem the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S. via the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean. The campaign also ups the pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has long been under U.S. pressure to relinquish power.

Maduro has retained power despite international support for Juan Guaido, the head of the neutered National Assembly and self-declared interim president. Guaido and his backers say Maduro is illegitimate because he rigged the most recent presidential election in his favor.

Guaido's camp—which includes the U.S. and many European powers—are demanding Maduro resign to allow democratic elections to take place.

Maduro and his allies—which include Russia and China—have claimed that the movement is a neo-colonial plot seeking to install a more pliant Venezuelan administration. Maduro has also accused the U.S. and Colombia of launching assassination plots against him and supporting an ill-fated armed coup attempt by mercenaries defeated in May.

Tensions increased further when five Iranian tankers delivered some 1.5 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela, which remains under American sanctions. Iran made the delivery despite warnings from the U.S. not to do so. The State Department has since sanctioned the five tanker captains who delivered the shipment.

The White House's effort to install Guaido has lost momentum since it recognized him as interim president last year. Despite the administration's best efforts Maduro has retained the loyalty of the country's powerful military and stamped out Guaido's efforts to spark a popular uprising.

Trump told Axios last week he might be willing to meet with Maduro, though on Monday clarified it would only be to ensure that the president left power.

Trump tweeted that he still stands "against socialism and with the people of Venezuela. My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime! I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!"

Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Venezuela, U.S. Navy, Maduro
This file photo shows Venezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez during a speech in Caracas, Venezuela on May 15, 2018. LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images/Getty