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The Associated Press May 16, 2008

Venezuela military buildup worries US, Colombia that weapons could reach rebels

By Christopher Toothaker

Caracas, Venezuela - The United States and Colombia have long been wary of Venezuela's peacetime military buildup, suspecting the weapons could end up in the hands of drug-trafficking Colombian rebels.

Now they have documented reasons for their worries --certified by Interpol.

Colombian rebel computer files described Thursday as authentic by the international police agency suggest a dramatic arms buildup by President Hugo Chavez could benefit leftist guerrillas that the U.S. has spent billions to defeat.

Venezuela is buying Russian fighter jets, helicopters and Chinese light-attack jets. It is making armored combat vehicles that can be mounted with surface-to-air missiles, planning to build South America's first Kalashnikov rifle factory and spending big on rockets, bullets, assault weapons, sniper rifles and night-vision equipment.

Chavez says his only purpose is to ward off a U.S. invasion --not to supply the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

``We aren't going to attack anybody. But I always say this: Nobody should make a mistake with us,'' Chavez told soldiers celebrating the anniversary of his return to power after a brief 2002 coup. ``Our fatherland is permanently threatened by imperialism.''

But military analysts say it is Colombia that should fear the 100,000 Russian-made assault rifles, 5,000 Dragunov sniper rifles and surface-to-air missiles Venezuela is amassing.

``These are just the sorts of weapons that the FARC would find interesting since these are the standard tools of guerrilla warfare,'' said John Pike, a military analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.

U.S. military officials say the weapons proliferation far outweighs any threat Chavez faces in the region. ``We are seriously worried about this great quantity of acquisitions,'' U.S. Lt. Gen. Glenn Spears said recently.

Chavez's military spending spree isn't on the agenda Friday at a summit of Latin American and European leaders in Lima, Peru, which is supposed to focus on food prices, climate change and poverty. But with Chavez and Colombia President Alvaro Uribe both attending, it is likely to come up.

Uribe only said that he is satisfied with the Interpol report.

``Terrorism doesn't have borders or ethics,'' he said upon arriving in Lima Thursday for the summit.

Chavez, who has denied funding or arming the rebels, called Interpol's report ``ridiculous.'' The documents suggest Venezuela was preparing to loan the rebels $250 million and help them get Russian weapons and possibly even missiles for use against Colombian military aircraft.

The nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday urged the U.S. not to act unilaterally on the Interpol findings. But it also noted that Chavez's international arms purchases --which have increased from $71 million between 2002 and 2004 to $4 billion between 2005 and 2007 --``should be watched.''

Many South American countries are modernizing armed forces that languished under the civilian rule that followed the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. Of these, Brazil is the biggest spender.

But per-capita comparisons by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies show Venezuela's defense budget of $2.6 billion is second only to Chile, which built up a large defense industry during the 1973-90 military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Russia and China have quickly become Venezuela's main suppliers of military hardware. Chavez said this week he plans to talk with Russia's president during an upcoming visit to Moscow about buying ``long-range, anti-aircraft missile systems'' and ``tank battalions.''

Venezuela plans to install a radar system with help from China and has begun negotiating the purchase of Chinese-made, K-8 military planes, which are mainly for training. But they can be used for combat and surveillance, Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceno said Thursday as he handed out new Russian-made, AK-103 Kalashnikov assault rifles to National Guard troops.

``The best formula against the war is being well prepared for it,'' Chavez told soldiers this week, prompting rousing applause. ``We will continue equipping the armed forces and now more quickly than before.''

Chavez has bragged about proposals to build a Venezuelan rocket. Many documents retrieved from the rebel computers discuss Venezuelan efforts to help the FARC obtain weapons, including rockets.

In March 2007, a rebel commander known as Timochenko wrote that ``intelligence officials from our neighboring navy'' say it's very difficult to obtain ``rockets,'' but that ``they're disposed to help us get all the parts to build them.''

In a January 2007 note, Ivan Marquez, the rebel's main go-between with the Chavez government, mentions ``the possibility of taking advantage of Venezuela's purchase of arms from Russia to include some containers destined for the FARC.''

Another message from Marquez, dated Aug. 20, 2006, describes a visit to an anti-aircraft missile factory in China by a Venezuelan official who is said to have returned with a catalog for the FARC.

The FARC, which finances its military operations with drug-trafficking and kidnapping ransoms, is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.


Copyright 2008, The Associated Press