Chavez Kalashnikov Factory Plan Stirs Fear

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 18, 2006; 10:45 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez's plans to build the first Kalashnikov factory in South America are stirring fears Venezuela could start arming his leftist allies in the hemisphere with Russian assault rifles.

Chavez denies such ambitions, saying his government bought 100,000 Russian-made AK-103 assault rifles and a license from Moscow to make Kalashnikovs and ammunition to bolster its defenses against "the most powerful empire in history" _ the United States.

Some political opponents and critics suspect Chavez, a former paratrooper, has other intentions, such as providing allies such as Bolivia with arms while forging an anti-Washington military alliance.

"Our president has always had a warlike mentality, but now it appears this mentality is turning into a mission that could easily extend to other parts of Latin America," said William Ojeda, a presidential candidate who hopes to run against Chavez in the December election.

Chavez has said "Venezuelan blood would run" if the United States tried to invade Cuba or Bolivia, though he has not said his government would provide them with weapons.

The Bush administration also is concerned about Chavez's intentions.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that Venezuela appeared to be in the midst of an "outsized military buildup for a country of that size and the nature of the threats" in the region.

"They've already purchased 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles from Russia. So I'm not quite sure what else they might need a factory for," McCormack said. "It certainly raises serious questions about what their intentions are."

The first 30,000 of those rifles have arrived in Venezuela, with the rest due by year's end.

"If the president says he'll send Venezuelans to defend other Latin American nations, nobody should doubt that he's willing to send them weapons as part of his anti-imperialist vision," Ojeda said.

Ojeda pointed out that Bolivia's new socialist president, Evo Morales, referred to Chavez as his "commander" during a recent ceremony marking the 78th anniversary of the birth of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the revolutionary who was captured and executed in Bolivia 39 years ago.

Chavez has provided a helicopter and pilots to Morales to ferry him around in the weeks ahead of a July vote for a constituent assembly that will rewrite the Bolivian constitution.

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