- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela yesterday dismissed as “impertinence” U.S. criticism of its plans to buy Russian rifles and helicopters and suggested Washington was just upset about not being the seller.

“This is a sovereign action by Venezuela which President [Hugo] Chavez’s government is not willing to discuss,” Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said in a terse statement.

It was the second public rebuttal this week by the leftist Mr. Chavez’s government of U.S. fears about the planned Venezuelan arms purchases announced several months ago.

Russia criticized the United States on Thursday after The Washington Times first reported that the Bush administration had filed a formal protest with the Russian Embassy in Washington about the pending sale of 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles.

The Times quoted administration officials as saying intelligence reports point to Venezuela using the weapons to “arm left-wing rebels in the region.”

Venezuela, the world’s No. 5 oil exporter, is a major supplier of oil to the United States. But Mr. Chavez and President Bush’s government have been at loggerheads over policies and ideology.

Mr. Rangel yesterday rejected concerns of the U.S. State Department that the automatic rifles and up to 40 helicopters Venezuela is buying from Russia could fall into the hands of Marxist guerrillas that Washington considers “terrorists.”

In his statement, Mr. Rangel described the U.S. reaction as “another impertinence from Mr. Bush’s [administration].”

“One has to ask whether the U.S. concern might not stem from the fact that this equipment is being bought in Russia and not in the United States. … I suspect that if the purchase was being made from the Americans, they wouldn’t be so concerned,” he said.

Russian officials also said U.S. objections were unfounded and that Washington was motivated by anger about lost business opportunities for American companies in the international arms market.

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries member Venezuela had for decades been a political and military ally of the United States in Latin America.

But since Mr. Chavez was first elected in 1998, he has irritated Washington by courting anti-U.S. states including Cuba and Iran and seeking closer trade and military ties with Russia, China and Cuba.

Mr. Chavez last year downgraded Venezuela’s cooperation with Washington by asking the U.S. military to close down its liaison offices at Venezuelan armed forces bases. But Venezuela still uses U.S. military hardware, including F-16 fighters.

In addition to the AK-47 rifles and helicopters, Venezuela is evaluating Russian MiG-29 fighters as potential replacements for its F-16s. It is also wants to buy a telecommunications satellite from China.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega suggested this week the new rifles could allow Mr. Chavez to export small arms to rebel movements, including Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

The U.S. administration is increasing its political pressure on Mr. Chavez since his recent diplomatic dispute with neighbor Colombia over the seizure of a top Colombian Marxist rebel from Venezuela.

Colombian forces crossed into Venezuela and snatched the rebel.

U.S. officials are urging Mr. Chavez to end any relationship his government might have with Colombian rebels.

Mr. Chavez has insisted he has no ties with the guerrillas and will expel them if they cross over into Venezuela. He has said the new Russian helicopters will be used to patrol the border.

The Venezuelan leader contends Washington is using the Colombian rebels issue to try to isolate his government politically in the region and sabotage his efforts to create an “anti-imperialist” alliance of Latin American nations.

Staff reporter Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report in Washington.

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