- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

BUENOS AIRES - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned during a swing through South America yesterday that Russian-made rifles being sought by Venezuela could find their way into the hands of Colombian rebels.

“I can’t understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at a press conference in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, where he met with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “I personally hope it doesn’t happen. I can’t imagine if it did happen it would be good for the hemisphere.”

Mr. Rumsfeld, whose concern about the proposed arms sale was first reported by The Washington Times in early February, said the weapons sought by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could fall into the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The Marxist guerrilla group has increased its efforts to destabilize the government of Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, who accuses Mr. Chavez of supporting the insurgents.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s comments came a day after he met with Argentina’s defense minister, Jose Pampuro, in Buenos Aires, where the two discussed potential technology deals and military cooperation.

Though Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Pampuro described the talks as constructive, they failed to reach an agreement that would grant immunity from prosecution to U.S. troops acting on Argentine soil.

Such an agreement, designed to block U.S. soldiers from being taken before the International Criminal Court, is considered by Washington to be a necessary condition for conducting joint military exercises.

Mr. Rumsfeld also discussed Argentina’s sparse radar coverage of its airspace in parts of the country where officials say drug traffickers and other criminal elements enter undetected.

The State Department’s annual drug report, released this month, says Argentine officials are “concerned about the use of small private aircraft to carry cargo loads of narcotics into Argentina from Bolivia and Paraguay.”

Those officials “acknowledge that only a small percentage of Argentine airspace is covered by radar and, in the absence of effective radar information, it is simply impossible to gauge the number of aircraft entering Argentina undetected,” the report points out.

In December, El Clarin, a leading newspaper, reported that an old and inadequate radar system in the northeastern part of the country, near the Triple Border area, detects an average of 60 illegal flights per month.

U.S. concerns over the radar gaps come against the backdrop of the State Department’s assertion that Colombian drug factions are increasing their presence in Argentina, which U.S. officials say is a transit point for drug exports to Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States.

In Brazil, Mr. Rumsfeld is scheduled to visit Manaus, a remote jungle city, where he will be shown an advanced system of sensors and radar used to detect criminal activity and monitor environmental changes in the vast jungle areas.

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