14 Sep 2009

Chavez shakes hands with Russia on big arms deal

9:45 pm on 14 September 2009

Amid growing fears of a new arms race in South America, Venezuela says Russia has agreed to lend it $US2 billion to buy tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.

President Hugo Chavez says the deal, agreed on his visit to Moscow last week, includes 92 tanks and an advanced missile system capable of shooting down aircraft and cruise missiles.

The BBC reports that in his weekly Alo Presidente TV address to the nation, Mr Chavez said the weapons were intended to boost Venezuela's defensive capacity.

The deal comes as tensions grow between Venezuela and Colombia over the latter's plan to allow the United States access to seven military bases there.

Colombia says the US forces will help in the war against drugs and left-wing guerrillas, and will not destabilise the region. But Mr Chavez has suggested that it poses a threat to Venezuelan security.

He said the anti-aircraft rockets systems would make it difficult to be attacked. "With these rockets, it is going to be very difficult for them [the US] to come and bomb us," he said.

To develop nuclear power with Russian help

Mr Chavez said that the country's vast reserves of oil and gas demanded military protection.

"We have the largest petroleum reserves in the world. The empire has its sights on them," he said, using a term which he commonly uses to refer to the US.

"Venezuela has no plans to invade anybody, nor attack anybody. These arms are necessary for our national defence."

He also reiterated that his government was committed to developing nuclear power with Russia's help.

Over recent years the country has signed more than $4b worth of weapons contracts with Russia, including the purchase of 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, numerous combat helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Last November, the two states held joint exercises in the Caribbean Sea, close to US territorial waters.