- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Bush administration has lodged a formal protest with Russia for agreeing to provide the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more than 100,000 AK-47 rifles that U.S. officials believe could be used to aid left-wing uprisings in Latin America.

The administration in December sent a secret letter of protest (formally called a demarche) to the Russian Embassy in Washington, according to senior U.S. officials. The officials say the warning was followed up by concerns expressed directly to the Russian defense and foreign ministers.

The protests come at a time when U.S. intelligence reports say that Mr. Chavez is working behind the scenes to prop up left-wing revolutionary movements in the region while retrenching from democratic principles at home.

Mr. Chavez is a vocal supporter of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries, and has encouraged the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. intelligence estimates there are now 15,000 Cuban officials in Venezuela. Caracas claims they are there as part of cultural and professional exchanges, but U.S. officials say they are communist advisers.

Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., denied yesterday his country plans to ship weapons for rebel uprisings.

“This is outrageous,” Mr. Alvarez said. “How do you think we can do that? Venezuela is a respectable country. We have never participated in arms traffic at all.”

He said Venezuela is buying the rifles “because of defensive purposes for the country.”

“We support a peaceful and democratic revolution,” Mr. Alvarez said. “We cannot be encouraging any other situation that is not democratic and peaceful.”

Washington, however, is wary of Mr. Chavez, who calls the United States an imperialistic power that has to be confronted.

A State Department official issued a statement to The Washington Times that said, “Venezuela’s plans to purchase various types and large quantities of weapons are extremely troubling. And we believe that Venezuela should consult with its neighbors on such armament acquisitions. The purchase has raised questions as to their ultimate purposes. Our concern about these weapons purchases are heightened by Venezuela’s tolerance for groups such as FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and ELN [National Liberation Army] and others.”

The FARC and ELN are terrorists groups in neighboring Colombia.

Another U.S. fear on the AK-47 sale is that the weapons they replace within the military will be exported to left-wing rebel movements.

The State Department official declined to say whether the Bush administration had sent Russia a formal protest.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out Venezuela for criticism at her Jan. 18 Senate confirmation hearing.

“We have a long and good history with Venezuela, long ties,” she said. “I think it’s extremely unfortunate that the Chavez government has not been constructive. And we do have to be vigilant and to demonstrate that we know the difficulties that that government is causing for its neighbors, its close association with Fidel Castro in Cuba.”

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