US, EU urge 'audit' of Venezuelan vote tally

The United States on Wednesday said it was too soon to recognize Nicolas Maduro as Venezuela's new president amid concerns about ballot fraud, as it joined EU calls for a vote recount.

The top US diplomat John Kerry said Washington was not yet ready to validate Maduro's narrow victory in Sunday's disputed elections in which he defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by a margin of 1.7 percent.

"We think there ought to be a recount," Kerry told US lawmakers, noting if "there are huge irregularities, we're going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."

"But that evaluation has to be made, and I haven't made it yet," he said, adding it was doubtful that a US delegation would attend Maduro's swearing-in ceremony set for Friday under such "contested circumstances."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said in a statement that she took "note" of statements by both sides "on the need for an audit of the vote."

"It is important that the outcome of the vote can be accepted by all and that appeals are duly considered by the competent Venezuelan authorities," she said, adding her concern at "the growing polarization of Venezuelan society."

Elections were triggered in the South American oil-rich nation after its fiery leader Hugo Chavez succumbed to cancer in March, having already anointed Maduro as his political heir.

The leftist Chavez had been a long-time nemesis of the United States, and some observers hope a new president could pave the way toward better relations between the two nations.

But the election has triggered tensions and deadly demonstrations, with each side accusing the other of stoking violence. Seven people have died, mainly in big cities, where Capriles did well.

The Supreme Court said a manual recount of ballots demanded by the defeated candidate would be impossible because voting has been computerized since 1999.

The White House meanwhile urged the Venezuelan government to protect the rights of free speech and protest, but warned against violence.

"We call on the Venezuelan government to respect the rights of Venezuelan citizens to peaceful assembly and free speech," said White House spokesman Jay Carney in a statement, noting "the acceptance by both candidates for an audit of the ballots."

"Such a process would contribute to political dialogue and help advance the country's democracy."

Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Russia and Spain have recognized the Venezuelan decision to confirm Maduro as the winner.

Spain had initially expressed doubts, but the foreign ministry late Tuesday said "now that the constitutional and legal procedures have ended," the government "respects the National Election Board's proclamation."