June 3, 2006

Venezuela troops get 30,000 new Russian rifles

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela received a
shipment of 30,000 new Russian rifles on Saturday, weeks after
Washington restricted U.S. arms sales to Caracas over concerns
about President Hugo Chavez's ties to Cuba and Iran.

Venezuela says the AK103 Kalashnikov rifles and 25 million
rounds are part of efforts to modernize its military, but the
U.S. government has opposed the deals because of worries the
weapons could help destabilize the region.

Venezuela, a major oil exporter, is locked in an
increasingly tense standoff with Washington, which accuses
Chavez of eroding democracy and using his petroleum wealth to
undermine his South American neighbors.

"We should have the 100,000 rifles established in the
contract by the end of the year," Defense Minister Adm. Orlando
Maniglia said. "Our frontiers will now be re-equipped with this
new, modern weapon."

He said the rifles, part of a multimillion-dollar arms
deal, would replace aging FAL weapons and Russia would help
Venezuela build plants to make its own Kalashnikov rifles and
ammunition in a few years.

Chavez, who accuses Washington of trying to oust him or
invade Venezuela, has trimmed military cooperation with the
United States and ordered officers and civilian reservists to
train for a possible guerrilla war against U.S. troops.

First elected in 1998, Chavez says his self-described
socialist revolution for the poor counters U.S. influence in
South America and he has bolstered energy ties with Russia,
China and Cuba to curb Venezuela's traditional reliance on the
United States.

Washington last month banned U.S. arms sales to Chavez's
government because of jitters about his ties with Havana and
Tehran and what it called his inaction against Marxist FARC
guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

The U.S. government had already moved to block Spain's
attempts to sell $2 billion in military ships and planes to
Chavez and opposed a deal for Brazilian jets because they
contained U.S.-made military technology.

Angered by Washington's restrictions, Chavez says he could
buy Sukhoi fighters from Russia instead and has warned he could
sell his U.S.-made F-16 jets to China or Cuba. Venezuela has
already purchased Russian attack helicopters this year.

"We have to do something about the F-16s. We have to
replace them now that they (U.S.) are definitely not going to
sell us any more planes or even any spare parts," Maniglia