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Venezuela to buy more tanks over US threat

CARACAS, Venezuela: President Hugo Chavez said on Thursday his government will buy dozens of Russian tanks because Venezuela feels threatened by a pending deal for the US military to increase its presence in neighbouring Colombia.

Chavez announced the plan while condemning Colombia’s negotiations on an agreement to let US forces use at least seven of its military bases.

“We’re going to buy several battalions of Russian tanks,” Chavez said at a news conference, saying the deal is among accord she hopes to conclude during a visit to Russia in September.

Chavez’s government has already bought more than $4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005, including helicopters, fighter jets and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The socialist leader called Colombia’s plan to host more US soldiers a “hostile act” and a “true threat” to Venezuela and its leftist allies.

He warned that a possible US build-up could lead to the “start of a war in South America,” but gave no indication that Venezuela’s military is mobilizing in preparation for any conflict.

Chavez is seeking to pressure Colombia to turn back on its base plan. He threatened to cut back on imports from Colombia, an important source of goods from milk to chicken, and replace them with purchases from Argentina and Brazil.

Trade between Venezuela and Colombia reached $7.2 billion last year. Chavez noted there had been plans to import 10,000 automobiles from Colombia, but said that due to the impasse that figure will become “zero.”

With tensions heightening over Colombia’s plan to bring in more American troops to help with his fight against drug trafficking, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe set out on a regional tour this week to defend his plans.

“How many lies would he be telling today?” Chavez gibed as Uribe visited Chile. He called the Colombian leader a “puppet” of the United States.

Chavez also expressed frustration with President Barack Obama over the deal being negotiated with Colombia. He said the Obama he saw in Trinidad and Tobago earlier this year, when they shook hands and pledged better relations, “is disappearing.”

Colombian officials say they hope talks next week will produce an agreement that will give US forces greater access to bases in Colombia.

The 10-year lease agreement would not boost the presence of American troops and civilian military contractors above the 1,400currently permitted by US law, the Colombians say.

Chavez also dismissed Uribe’s complaints about anti-tank rocket launchers that were sold to Venezuela in the 1980s and ended up in the hands of leftist rebels in Colombia, calling the accusations” trash” and saying they were timed to “blackmail” his government while trying to bring in more US troops.

Chavez withdrew his ambassador to Colombia last week and threatened to sever diplomatic ties completely after Uribe raised the issue.

Chavez held two similar bazooka-like weapons at the news conference, saying he believes based on photos provided by Colombia that the launchers seized had already been discharged and were empty tubes. Colombian officials said the AT-4 launchers had not been fired and rockets were found with them.

Chavez said the three rocket launchers seized by Colombia were part of a group of five that were stolen by rebels of Colombia’s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, in 1995during an attack on a border post in southern Venezuela.

Sweden has confirmed the weapons originally were sold to Venezuela and demanded an explanation from Venezuela’s top diplomat in Stockholm.

Chavez criticised Swedish officials for “falling into this play” and said his government does not plan to offer Sweden any explanation. Chavez denied knowingly supplying weapons to the rebels.

“It’s not that I’ve sent them to them, or that generals in my army are giving arms to the Colombian guerrillas,” he said.

Chavez, who has patched up previous spats with Uribe, said if the Colombian leader wants to talk he could come to a regional meeting Monday in Ecuador. Uribe plans to be absent.

Venezuela’s arms spending has generated concern in Bogota for years. Chavez’s military already has nearly 200 tanks, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, while Colombia has no tank units.

It’s unclear how many more tanks Chavez plans to buy or how much he plans to spend. He said each battalion typically has about 40tanks and Russia is offering credit.

Cuban ex-President Fidel Castro supported Chavez in a column published Wednesday on the Cuba debate Web site, saying that” Venezuela isn’t arming itself against the sister nation of Colombia, it’s arming itself against the (US) empire.”

“The threat … is directed at all the countries” of South America, Castro wrote.

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