LA ORCHILA, Venezuela – Venezuela fired live missiles from fighter jets and ships Friday during exercises intended to demonstrate the firepower of President Hugo Chavez's military.
Smoke rose from ships off the La Orchila island military base as Otomat MK2 missiles arced into the sky and Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets flew in formation.
The televised war games allowed the military to showcase some of the hardware bought under Chavez, who says Venezuela's main threat is the United States. A U.S. Navy plane last month flew over the same Caribbean island base, drawing a diplomatic protest from Venezuela.
U.S. officials said the plane accidentally strayed into Venezuelan airspace during a counter-drug mission, but Chavez accused Washington of espionage.
Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel Briceno commanded the troops during Friday's exercises, ordering them to fire at mock "enemy units." It was the first time in 13 years that such drills were held with live missile fire at sea, he said.
The ships and planes hit their target — an old tugboat — with missiles and a 1,100-pound bomb, sinking the vessel 22 miles offshore, Rangel said.
The Otomat is a short-range, ship- and ground-launched cruise missile, manufactured by Italy and France, that was introduced in Europe 36 years ago.
Latin American countries including Colombia and Peru have voiced concern about billions of dollars of arms that Chavez has purchased, but Rangel said new weaponry is needed to keep Venezuela safe from the U.S.
He declared the exercises a success, saying "we've been able to show our power of dissuasion and defense."
The U.S. denies having designs on Venezuela, which is its fifth largest oil supplier. But Chavez insists his government is under a real threat, citing the U.S. Navy's decision earlier this year to re-establish the Fourth Fleet to direct naval forces in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Opposition politician Enrique Ochoa Antich said Chavez's perpetual verbal conflicts with the U.S. aim to rally nationalist sentiment around the threat posed by the "empire," as the Venezuelan leader calls the United States.
But Ochoa said the approach has been used by Chavez for so long that it "isn't very effective anymore at this point."