Venezuela Military Displays New Weaponry

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 5, 2006; 5:49 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela -- A pair of Russian-made fighter jets roared overhead and soldiers marched in formation carrying new Kalashnikov rifles Wednesday as Venezuela marked its Independence Day showcasing recent arms deals that have alarmed Washington.

President Hugo Chavez addressed the troops and thousands of spectators, saying his military is growing stronger despite U.S. attempts to block weapons sales.

"Venezuela is not preparing to invade anybody," Chavez said. "But nobody mess with us, because we are ready to die to safeguard the sovereignty of this land."

Chavez says his country is preparing to face a possible U.S. invasion, a claim dismissed as ridiculous by American officials, who are often at odds with the leftist leader.

Tanks and jeeps rolled down a major avenue during Wednesday's parade, while two recently bought Sukhoi fighter jets swooped and dived in the sky.

Chavez welcomed the Russian inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle, the elderly Mikhail Kalashnikov, who was visiting along with a Russian military delegation.

"We salute General Kalashnikov," Chavez said, calling him a "World War II hero of the great Russian fatherland."

Over Washington's opposition, Venezuela has received an initial shipment of 30,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles out of 100,000 it is buying from Russia this year for $54 million. It is also obtaining a license to eventually produce its own rifles at the first Kalashnikov factory in South America.

Chavez, a former paratroop commander, is using booming oil revenues to modernize Venezuela's military, and has finalized deals worth $2.7 billion for the rifles, Russian military helicopters, Spanish transport planes, patrol boats and other items.

Chavez said more Sukhoi jets will arrive soon from Russia.

It remains unclear how many billions Venezuela will spend on the 24 Su-30 fighter jets that Chavez hopes to buy from Russia. He plans to discuss the deal during a visit to Moscow at the end of the month.

In his speech to troops and parade-watchers, Chavez accused the U.S. government of trying to ground Venezuela's fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets by refusing to supply replacement parts, but said his country was undeterred.

"The U.S. government has sabotaged us by failing to meet its contracts and obligations," he said. "Nonetheless, our air force is recuperating operations and especially now ... (with) the most powerful warplanes in the world."

U.S. officials say they supplied some replacement parts but are not required under the original sale contract to provide upgrades.

American officials, who claim Chavez's military buildup is exaggerated and threatens to destabilize the region, announced in May they were curtailing arms sales to Venezuela, saying the country was failing to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts.

But Chavez said that was purely politics aimed at discrediting his government, since he has become a leading critical voice against the Bush administration.

Among other dignitaries attending the Independence Day ceremonies were the presidents of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, who attended Venezuela's formal entry into the Mercosur trade bloc on Tuesday.

Chavez proposed Wednesday that Mercosur members _ Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay _ should one day join their militaries to guarantee the region's security. The Venezuelan leader is a frequent proponent of South American integration, but a fierce opponent of U.S. trade deals.

The commemorations mark the day Venezuela became the first South American country to declare independence from Spain in 1811. Chavez laid a floral wreath at the tomb of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, the inspiration for Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution socialist movement.

© 2006 The Associated Press