By Steve Holland
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government's suggestion that an American citizen it has detained is a spy is "ridiculous," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a television interview recorded on Saturday during a visit to Costa Rica.
Venezuela said late last month it had detained an American called Timothy Hallet Tracy, accusing him of financing opposition student demonstrations after April's disputed presidential election and saying he had clearly been trained as an intelligence agent.
Venezuela said Tracy, 35, from Michigan, had received money from a foreign non-profit organization and had redirected those funds toward student organizations, seeking to provoke "civil war".
Relatives and friends of Tracy have described him to U.S. media as a documentary filmmaker who was in Venezuela to make a film about the presidential election.
"This U.S. citizen who apparently has been detained, we will handle (it) like ... every situation where we get a U.S. citizen who gets into some sort of legal tangle in a foreign country," Obama told Noticias Telemundo in an interview set to be aired on Sunday.
"The notion that this individual is some spy is ridiculous," Obama added as he wrapped up a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica. "We've seen some of this rhetoric occasionally come out of Venezuela."
U.S. officials say the matter is being handled privately, rather than government-to-government, and they are unaware of details of the case. They are, however, seeking consular access to Tracy.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, elected in April by a narrow margin, has accused former U.S. officials of fomenting plans to assassinate him and also said Washington is supporting efforts to destabilize Venezuela.
The U.S. government has denied that, and Venezuelan opposition have derided the torrent of accusations as a smokescreen to distract Venezuelans from difficult domestic issues.
Obama said in a separate interview with Univision News, aired on Friday, that the United States was watching "crackdowns on the opposition" in Venezuela, when asked if he considered newly elected Maduro to be the country's legitimate president.
The United States angered Maduro when it last month held back recognition of his narrow victory over Capriles.
"What we want for Venezuela is ... Venezuelans ... able to choose their own leadership in fair and free elections a democratic process that is credible," Obama told Noticias Telemundo. "We have not tried to interfere in any way with what happens there."
"What we've said is, you know, let's make sure that the rules are being followed, that people are not being thrown into jail or intimidated, that the press is allowed to report fairly on what happens, that the ruling party doesn't resort to intimidation in terms of skewing results."
(With reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Eric Walsh)