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U.S. settles flap over Venezuelan president's overflight

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a meeting with South Africa's Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in Caracas September 19,
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a meeting with South Africa's Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in Caracas September 19,

(Note: Strong language in the last paragraph)

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States approved a last-minute flight plan for Venezuelan officials, the State Department said on Friday, after an irate President Nicolas Maduro said his jet was banned from flying over Puerto Rico on his way to China.

Washington told Venezuela late on Thursday that permission was granted even though the request had not been properly submitted, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Maduro said on Twitter at about 10:30 p.m. local time Thursday (11 a.m. ET Friday) that he had left Venezuela for Beijing.

Hours earlier, Caracas complained that the United States had banned Maduro's jet from flying through U.S. airspace en route to a state visit in China this weekend, calling it an act of aggression.

Harf said Venezuela did not follow proper steps in its flyover request, giving just one day's notice instead of the required three.

"Additionally, the plane in question was not a state aircraft, which is required for a diplomatic clearance," she said in a statement.

"Although the request was not properly submitted, U.S. authorities worked with Venezuelan officials at the Venezuelan Embassy to resolve the issue. U.S. authorities made an extraordinary effort to work with relevant authorities to grant overflight approval in a matter of hours," Harf said.

The incident is the latest diplomatic tussle between United States and Maduro, who has repeatedly clashed with Washington since winning office in April following the death of his mentor, the socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

At times, he has accused the United States of plotting to assassinate him. At others, the former bus driver and union negotiator has appeared to want warmer relations, after years of mistrust during Chavez's rule.

In indignant comments late on Thursday, Maduro also accused Washington of not wanting to issue a visa for General Wilmer Barrientos, his minister in the office of the presidency, to attend the U.N. General Assembly next week in New York.

Barrientos was a close ally of Chavez and supported a failed military coup by him in 1992. Maduro appointed the general to the high-profile ministerial position in July.

"You're not the owners of the United Nations," Maduro said, adding that the United States was obliged to give every member of the delegation a visa, "if we decide to go to New York."

Later on Friday, Venezuela's charge d'affaires in Washington, Calixto Ortega, told local television network Telesur that the Venezuelan president will attend the U.N. General Assembly after his China trip.

In response to Maduro's flight troubles, Bolivia's President Evo Morales suggested on Thursday the leaders of the leftist Latin America and Caribbean bloc ALBA should boycott the U.N. General Assembly meetings.

Awaiting Maduro's arrival in Beijing, Venezuelan Petroleum Minister Rafael Ramirez took to Twitter to complain harshly about how the president had been treated by the United States.

"Say what you like. Go to hell Yankee shits. We're free. The rest doesn't matter!" Ramirez said.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Caracas; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham)

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