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Navy warship’s secret mission off West Africa aims to help punish Venezuela

WASHINGTON – Over the past month, Navy cruiser San Jacinto left the West African island nation of Cape Verde on a secret mission to help deal a heavy blow to President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, an avowed opponent of the Trump administration.

The mission was launched in early June, when Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman who is widely regarded as the architect of the economic deals that keep the Maduro government afloat, was arrested in Cape Verde when his private plane sank stopped for refueling on the way to Iran from Venezuela. The United States has requested his extradition on US money laundering charges, and legal proceedings have begun.

“Saab is of crucial importance to Maduro because he has been the leader of the Maduro family for years,” said Moises Rendon, Venezuela specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Saab has access to inside information about Maduro’s corruption schemes inside and outside Venezuela.”

The stealthy arrival of the US warship coincided with President Trump’s sacking of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper in early November. For months, Mr Esper had pushed back on requests from the state and justice departments to deploy a navy vessel to Cape Verde to deter Venezuela and Iran from plotting to drive Mr Saab away from the island. Mr Esper scoffed at concerns over a cape and dagger jailbreak, and said the Navy dispatch was an abuse of US military power. A Coast Guard cutter was sent in August instead.

With Mr. Esper on the sidelines, however, his replacement, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller, a former White House counterterrorism aide, quickly approved the deployment of the San Jacinto of Norfolk, in Virginia. The ship crossed the Atlantic to keep close eye contact on the only captive.

In the final days of Mr. Trump’s tenure, the story of the San Jacinto and its unlikely month-long mission illustrates what critics say is the administration’s capricious use of the military – one day deploying troops at the south-western border, suddenly pulling other troops from the north-east. Syria next.

It is also the latest effect of Mr. Trump’s purge of top Pentagon leadership and its slice of largely die-hard loyalists. Mr. Esper having left, Mr. Miller ordered deeper troop cuts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia; ousted the politician who oversees the military’s efforts to combat ISIS; and considered withdrawing its military support for the CIA, including its drone fleet.

The confrontation with Mr. Saab is the latest twist in the tense relationship between the United States and Venezuela. In 2017, Mr. Trump said he would not rule out a “military option” to quell chaos in Venezuela. In 2018, the Trump administration held secret meetings with rebel military officers from Venezuela to discuss their plans to topple Mr. Maduro.

It should come as no surprise then that administration assistants were elated when officials in Cape Verde arrested Mr Saab on his fuel cut, responding to a research alert from Interpol known as the notice. red, which was in effect due to US money laundering charges. .

In a statement at the time, Mr. Maduro’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said that Mr. Saab had stopped in Cape Verde for a “necessary stopover” en route to “ensure the obtaining” of food and medicine for Venezuela.

Mr. Arreaza condemned the detention, calling it an act of “violation of international law and standards” and saying that the Maduro government would do everything possible to protect “the human rights of Mr. Alex Saab”.

Such threats worry extremists in justice and state departments, including Elliott Abrams, the state department’s special envoy for Iran and Venezuela. They expressed concerns that Iranian or Venezuelan agents could help Mr. Saab escape the archipelago 350 miles west of Senegal into the North Atlantic, and that the United States would lose a unusual opportunity to punish Mr. Maduro.

Detaining Mr. Saab for months has robbed Mr. Maduro of an important ally and major financial mender at a time when fewer countries are willing or able to come to the aid of Venezuela. If Mr Saab cooperates with US officials, he could help unravel Mr Maduro’s economic support network and help authorities lay charges against other allies of the Venezuelan government.

Washington accused Mr. Saab of “profiting from the famine” by participating in a scheme in which he and others are suspected of getting away with large sums of government funds intended to feed the starving population of Venezuela. U.S. officials said it was part of a larger program in which Mr. Maduro’s allies bought food of lower and lower quality than what was demanded in contracts and redistributed additional money to loyalists.

Mr. Saab is one of many Maduro-related officials and businessmen indicted by the United States government in recent years, including Mr. Maduro himself. The United States and more than 50 other countries regard Mr. Maduro’s government as illegitimate and recognize a political rival, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s interim president.

In Washington this summer, Mr. Esper stood firm: Mr. Saab’s extradition was a laudable effort. But it would have to be conducted without a Navy warship. Instead, the Trump administration sent Coast Guard cutter Bear to Cape Verde in August. Cmdr. Jay W. Guyer, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard, said the bear had conducted a joint patrol with the Cape Verdean Coast Guard “to counter illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.” He said the bear also took part in a search and rescue demonstration near Cape Verde.

When Mr. Trump fired Mr. Esper, a Navy warship was back in service. And not a moment too soon, administration officials said.

To add to the international drama, two West African countries, at the request of the State Department, last month denied permission to refuel at their airports to an Iranian plane bound for Cape Verde . Officials said it was possible the plane was carrying Iranian spies, commandos or perhaps just lawyers trying to overturn Mr Saab’s extradition. The plane returned to Tehran.

Last week, the San Jacinto got new orders: return to Norfolk to ensure the 393-member crew will be home for Christmas and other holidays.

Supporters of the Navy’s deployment, like Mr. Abrams, have expressed confidence that San Jacinto’s presence – at an operating cost of $ 52,000 per day, according to the Navy’s Second Fleet – had deterred any harmful mischief.

The Pentagon’s Africa Command did not recognize the ship’s clandestine mission, claiming only that it was sent to Cape Verde “to combat illicit transnational maritime activities” in the region, said Kelly Cahalan, a spokesperson. command, in an email.

Ultimately, Mr Esper’s worst fears – an involuntary clash by the Navy with Iranian or Venezuelan agents in a case best suited for diplomats and international lawyers to resolve – did not materialize.

In Cape Verde, US officials said, the extradition process is continuing and Mr Saab’s appeals are expected to last at least until early 2021. A lawyer for Mr Saab has not returned requests for comments by email. A senior Pentagon official said no decision has been made on replacing the San Jacinto with another Navy vessel after the vacation.

Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Julie Turkewitz from Bogotá, Colombia.

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