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Venezuela orders probe into ex-oil czar, UN ambassador

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's chief prosecutor has launched a probe into the country's former oil czar and ambassador to the United Nations for alleged ties to a vast corruption scheme at the state oil company, officials said Tuesday.

The investigation against Rafael Ramirez comes one week after the former longtime head of state oil company PDVSA resigned from his U.N. post on orders from President Nicolas Maduro. Relations between the Venezuelan political heavyweights had become increasingly strained.

With oil production low and an economic crisis playing out, Maduro ordered a shake-up of PDVSA, the source of almost all of Venezuela's foreign currency earnings.

Dozens of oil officials have been arrested in recent weeks, including two former oil ministers. Ramirez's cousin, Diego Salazar, has also been arrested on suspicion of helping siphon off $1.6 billion to banks in the European principality of Andorra.

Chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab called Salazar a "direct partner of Rafael Ramirez" on Tuesday when he announced the investigation into Ramirez for links to the corruption scheme at the state oil company.

Ramirez, who was never part of Maduro's inner circle, is believed to have been the ultimate target of housecleaning at PDVSA, which he led for 12 years. He was later named as Venezuela's U.N. ambassador.

Prosecutors have not announced any charges against Ramirez. Since resigning, he has denied taking part in any corruption schemes and has not made his whereabouts public after leaving New York.

He did not respond to a request by The Associated Press seeking comment.

Ramirez had becoming increasingly critical of Maduro's government amid an unprecedented economic crisis, saying he felt the need to speak out on policies he knew a great deal about from tenure running PDVSA.

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