- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO — U.S. officials in Venezuela say they have had some of their “questions and confusion” about Venezuela’s recent arms purchase answered, though doubts remain about the intended use of 100,000 Russian assault rifles.

Venezuela announced it had formalized with Russia a deal whereby Venezuela will purchase the rifles, ammunition and other light weaponry at a cost of $54 million.

The principal weapon in the cache, the AK-103, will be delivered to Venezuela in three shipments beginning in October and ending in February.

Venezuela also has brokered deals to buy Russian helicopters and MiG fighters.

Mere talk of the purchase earlier this year prompted concerns in the Bush administration.

During a visit to the region in March, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed concern about Venezuela’s efforts to bolster its defenses with Russian weapons.

“I can’t imagine what’s going to happen,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “I just hope that, personally hope, that it doesn’t happen. … I can’t imagine that if it did happen, that it would be good for the hemisphere.”

Hoping to dispel some of the speculation, Venezuelan Defense Minister Jorge Luis Garcia Carneiro last week provided a complete list of the exact types of weapons procured and their delivery dates in 2005 and 2006.

“Well, that answers some questions and confusion,” said the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, commenting on the minister’s disclosure on the weapons during a television interview. But he said the Bush administration still wonders why Venezuela feels compelled to bolster its defenses.

The Bush administration has been increasingly outspoken in its criticism of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Washington has accused him of trying to destabilize the region by supporting leftist movements throughout South America, most notably the Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has made similar accusations against Mr. Chavez, who refutes the charge at every turn. The main concern of Colombia and the United States is that the Russian weapons will wind up in the hands of Colombian rebels, something the Venezuelan leader denies.

“We have our worries,” said an embassy official in Venezuela. “We would like more transparency on this sale and other sales.”

Lingering suspicions about Mr. Chavez’s designs for the weapons and his penchant for inflammatory anti-American rhetoric prompted Pentagon officials earlier this year to craft a policy to “contain” him.

“Chavez is a problem because he is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries,” said Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the Pentagon, the Financial Times reported in March.

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