Venezuela Celebrates Independence Day With Weaponry Display

Russian-made fighter jets roared overhead and soldiers marched with new Kalashnikov rifles, as Venezuela celebrated its independence day Wednesday with a vivid display of recent arms purchases that have alarmed Washington.

Military tanks and jeeps rolled down a major avenue lined with thousands of spectators, and two recently acquired Sukhoi fighter jets performed aerial swoops and dives for the public.

In a speech, 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.

Washington, which claims Chavez's military buildup is exaggerated and threatens to destabilize the region, announced in May it was curtailing arms sales to Venezuela, saying the South American nation has failed to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts.

"The U.S. government has sabotaged us by failing to meet its contracts and obligations," Chavez said.

Even so, the air force is rebounding with "the most powerful warplanes in the world," he said, adding that more Sukhoi jets will soon be delivered by Russia.

Chavez, a former paratroop commander, is using surging oil revenues to modernize Venezuela's military, signing defense deals worth an estimated US$2.7 billion (euro2.1 billion) with countries including Russia and Spain.

Despite Washington's objections, Venezuela is purchasing 100,000 Russian-made AK-103 assault rifles — a modern version of the original Kalashnikovs — and a license to produce its own at the first Kalashnikov factory in South America.

Venezuela is also buying 15 Russian military helicopters for US$200 million (euro160 million) and wants to close a deal for 24 SU-30 fighter jets when Chavez visits Moscow later this month.

Mikhail Kalashnikov — inventor of the rifle that bears his name — was part of a Russian military delegation.

"We salute Gen. Kalashnikov ... World War II hero of the great Russian fatherland," Chavez said.

The commemorations marked the day Venezuela became the first South American country to declare independence from Spain in 1811.

Also attending were the presidents of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, who were in Caracas for Venezuela's formal entry into the Mercosur trade bloc the previous evening.

Chavez said Wednesday that Mercosur members — Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay — should one day form a military bloc to guarantee the region's security. The Venezuelan leader is a frequent proponent of South American integration and a fierce opponent of trade deals with the United States.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner said in a speech to Venezuela's congress that "strong winds of change" could be felt in the region.

It was the first time a foreigner made the keynote address on Venezuela's independence day, sparking some indignation.

"It's disrespectful to our national identity," said Lilia Arvelo, who led a dozen protesters in the capital.

Also Wednesday, Venezuela's Information Minister Willian Lara said North Korea, which began firing missiles in pre-dawn launches earlier in the day, has as much right to develop such technology as any other country.

"I don't share (the idea) that a group of privileged countries has the right to develop missile technology and the rest of humanity is prohibited," he said.

Chavez plans to visit North Korea but the government has said it doesn't intend to sign agreements to exchange military technology.

The Venezuelan leaders says his country — the world's fifth largest oil exporter — is preparing to repel a possible U.S. invasion. U.S. officials deny any such plan exists.

"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."