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Venezuela Rebuffs U.S. on Arms Deals

Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page A15

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 11 -- The Venezuelan government on Friday dismissed U.S. criticism of its plans to buy Russian rifles and helicopters, suggesting that the Bush administration was angry because the country was not buying U.S. weapons.

"This is a sovereign action by Venezuela which President Chavez's government is not willing to discuss," Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said in a statement.

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It was the second public rebuttal this week by Hugo Chavez's government of U.S. concerns about the planned Venezuelan arms purchases, which were announced several months ago.

Roger Noriega, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said this week that the new rifles could allow Chavez to export small arms to rebel movements, including guerrilla groups in neighboring Colombia.

The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said this week that the 100,000 Russian automatic rifles being purchased exceeded the number of Venezuela's regular armed forces.

In his statement, Rangel described the U.S. reaction as "another impertinence from Mr. Bush's government. 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."

Russian officials said Friday that the arms sales did not violate international law.

"We have been supplying, and will continue to supply, Venezuela with assault rifles," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters in Munich, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

Besides the rifles and helicopters, Venezuela is evaluating Russian MiG-29 fighters as possible replacements for its U.S.-made F-16s.

Venezuela, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is the world's No. 5 oil exporter and the second-largest supplier to the United States after Saudi Arabia.

For decades, the country had been a political and military ally of the United States. But since Chavez was elected in 1998, he has irritated Washington by seeking closer trade and military ties with Russia, China and Cuba.

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