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Chavez Courts Argentine Leader

President Hugo Chavez is pushing for South American unity and against a U.S.-promoted trade proposal, as Venezuela discusses full entry into a South American trade bloc during a visit by Argentina's president to this industrial riverside city.

Chavez bluntly portrayed the South American trade bloc Mercosur as an alternative to the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas on Sunday, with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner arriving here for talks.

The conversations with Kirchner would be aimed at "agreements for the strengthening of South American unity," Chavez said during his Sunday broadcast program.

"We're happy Nestor is here," said Chavez, meeting Kirchner at the airport outside Puerto Ordaz, about 270 miles east of Caracas. "Our path is toward the South."

The countries that make up Mercosur — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — have been critical of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, which would create a free-trade zone from Alaska to Argentina.

"Mercosur or the FTAA? ... Our destiny is Mercosur, and that's anti-FTAA," Chavez said during a four-hour broadcast from Puerto Ordaz.

Most other Latin American nations, including Mexico and Colombia, support the FTAA and the differences led to a bitter feud between Chavez and Mexican President Vicente Fox following this month's hemispheric summit in Argentina.

After Fox made veiled criticisms of anti-FTAA leaders, Chavez called Mexico an "ally of the empire," a reference to the United States, and warned Fox: "Don't mess with me."

The two countries recalled their ambassadors last week as the feud escalated.

Chavez said he didn't want to intensify the dispute by "putting more fuel on the fire," but he said that Venezuela will continue urging Latin American nations to unite rather than sign free-trade deals with Washington.

"Mexico supports the FTAA and says it's the best. I say it's the worst," he said. "We must be capable of debating without fighting."

Chavez argues the FTAA would help big U.S. companies at the expense of Latin America's poor.

He has used his nation's immense oil wealth to push his "Bolivarian Alternative" pact based on socialist principles and regional solidarity, offering fuel with preferential financing to several Caribbean and Latin American countries.

The Venezuelan president also stepped up his rhetoric against the United States on Sunday, saying he was prepared to flee to the mountains to help Venezuelans fight a guerrilla war against a possible U.S. invasion, while defending his decision to purchase 100,000 Russian-built Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The Bush administration denies backing a plot against Chavez, though U.S. officials last week accused him of endangering Venezuelan democracy by assuming ever-greater powers.

Kirchner's visit is likely to be seen as a sign of support for Chavez, who has helped Argentina through financial and oil deals.

Venezuela has bought US$950 million (euro791 million) this year in Argentine bonds in what Chavez has called a step toward creating a so-called Bank of the South to help provide financing to the region. Chavez said he would talk with Kirchner about buying more Argentine debt.

"The Caracas-Buenos Aires link is growing stronger," said Chavez, calling Kirchner "a good friend."