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Venezuela Applauds US For Drug Seizure In Rare Gesture

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela gave the U.S. Coast Guard credit on Thursday for cooperation in a large drug seizure _ a break in bitter squabbling over anti-narcotics efforts that comes ahead of a summit leaders of both nations will attend.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said in a statement the U.S. Coast Guard discovered 2,030 pounds (925 kilograms) of cocaine on a fishing boat off Venezuela's Caribbean coast after Venezuelan officials gave them permission to board.

He said five Venezuelans were arrested, but did not say when the seizure occurred.

The announcement comes at a moment of guarded optimism for an improvement in U.S. relations with Venezuela and other left-leaning Latin American nations that often feuded with the administration of President George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez are both scheduled to attend an April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, accusing its agents of espionage _ an accusation the DEA denies. Venezuelan officials have repeatedly expressed anger at U.S. declarations that corruption has helped make their country a growing shipment route for South American cocaine.

Two DEA agents still work in Venezuela, but U.S. Embassy officials say their efforts have been severely restricted.

El Aissami said the search for drugs on the fishing boat some 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) from the coastal town of Guiria was carried out "jointly with Venezuelan authorities" and he said it proves that the argument Venezuela "does not cooperate in this fight" is false.

U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Matt Moorlag in Miami said the Coast Guard located the Venezuela-flagged fishing boat 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Brazil, boarded the vessel Wednesday and discovered approximately 2,500 pounds (1,135 kilograms) of cocaine. It was not immediately clear what accounted for the discrepancy in the reported size of the seizure.

Moorlag said Venezuela has jurisdiction over the case, but Coast Guard officers conducted the search on their own.

Shelley McConnell, a Latin America expert at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, said Venezuela's announcement of cooperation in the seizure could be part of an effort by Chavez to send positive signals to the U.S. ahead of the summit.

"There is probably some messaging going on. Chavez may be sending a message to his friends throughout Latin America and the United States that he hopes to have constructive relationship with Obama," McConnell said in a telephone interview.

Venezuela's relations with Washington grew increasingly strained under Bush, whom Chavez has accused of trying to overthrow him. Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador and withdrew Venezuela's envoy to Washington in September.

Chavez said last week he hopes to "reset" Venezuela's relations with the United States at the summit.

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Associated Press writer Mike Melia contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.