By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan officials confirmed on Tuesday the defection of a former bodyguard of Socialist Party heavyweight Diosdado Cabello but denied media reports his evidence to U.S. investigators implicated the powerful official in running a drug ring.
Spanish newspaper ABC and Miami-based El Nuevo Herald reported Cabello's former security chief Leamsy Salazar had fled and was collaborating with U.S. authorities investigating allegations of Venezuelan officials' involvement in drugs.
A ruling party legislator confirmed the defection of a former security agent for Cabello, a powerful and combative ex-soldier who heads the National Assembly and is the ruling party's No. 2.
"He deserted from the armed forces in December and has emerged in the United States as a protected witness to defame, insult, and submit to public scorn the National Assembly's president," said Congressman Pedro Carreno, flanked by fellow "Chavista" legislators.
Nicolas Maduro's government leapt to the defense of Cabello, saying international media in cahoots with the United States were out to smear Venezuela.
"Imperialist hands are behind this," Maduro said in a speech on Tuesday evening, referring to the claims against Cabello. "A hell of solitude awaits whoever betrays the revolution."
The article, citing unnamed sources close to a U.S. investigation, said Salazar, who apparently worked for the late Hugo Chavez for nearly a decade, has evidence about Cabello's role as head of an alleged military-run "Sun Cartel."
Venezuelan officials have repeatedly denied accusations that such a cartel exists and demanded that evidence be shown.
U.S. officials, domestic political opponents and some foreign media have long accused Venezuela's military of colluding with traffickers and allege that President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government is, at the very least, turning a blind eye to the nation's cocaine trade.
Maduro, elected in 2013 to replace the late Chavez, denies that, depicting the claims as a campaign to besmirch his leftist government, and justify aggression and coup-plotting.
The Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald, which like ABC takes a hostile line against Venezuela's government, also reported Salazar has turned on his former boss and is collaborating with U.S. investigators, again citing anonymous sources.
"Every attack against me strengthens my spirit and commitment," Cabello tweeted, thanking supporters for messages of support. "We have lived through threats, infamies and intrigues during these years of revolution."
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)