Venezuela to Sign Arms Deal With Russia Despite U.S. Criticism

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that his oil-rich nation will sign major arms deals in Moscow to acquire Russian fighter jets and produce Kalashnikov assault rifles, as Russia shrugged off U.S. criticism of the weapons sales.

On a visit to the city of Izhevsk, where Kalashnikovs are made, Chavez said contracts to buy Su-30 jets and set up Kalashnikov rifle and ammunition plants in Venezuela would be signed in Moscow on Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.

"We are breaking the U.S. blockade that was aimed at disarming Venezuela," Chavez said in separate comments broadcast on state-run television in Venezuela.

CountryWatch: Venezuela

"We are not going to attack anyone, but nobody should make a mistake with us, especially the U.S. empire that wants to dominate the world with cannons and bombs," he said.

Chavez, who has become a thorn in Washington's side with his anti-U.S. policies, is to sign a more than US$1 billion deal for about 30 Su-30 fighter jets and 30 helicopters, the Russian defense minister said last week.

The United States underlined its opposition to the sale Tuesday and urged Moscow to reconsider the contracts.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the arms purchases exceeded Venezuela's defensive needs and "are not helpful in terms of regional stability."

But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov tersely dismissed the U.S. demands that Moscow annul the contracts, saying that "re-examining the contracts is absolutely excluded," news agencies reported. The Foreign Ministry had said Monday that Russia's military cooperation with Venezuela was "in strict compliance" with its international obligations.

Chavez, a leftist former army lieutenant colonel who has frequently warned that the United States could invade to seize control of his country's rich oil and natural gas reserves, arrived in Russia Tuesday for a three-day visit in which the highlight will be the signature of the arms deals.

He has used surging oil revenues to modernize Venezuela's military, signing multibillion defense deals with Russia and Spain. Venezuela earlier agreed to buy 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and wants to set up factories to produce them under license.

Chavez has courted foes and critics of Washington in what he calls an effort to create a global counterbalance to U.S. domination. He has crafted a socialist trade block with Cuba and Bolivia, signed a series of deals with Iran and supported North Korea's right to test-fire missiles.

The Venezuelan leader arrived from neighboring Belarus, where he met with authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, a leader — dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in Washington and European capitals — who shares his strong anti-U.S. views.

Chavez, who is on a major international tour that will later take him to visit Qatar, Iran and Mali, is also seeking support for a non-permanent U.N. Security Council seat.

The U.S. government is lobbying to block Venezuela's bid for a seat, backing Guatemala instead. The General Assembly will decide the issue in a secret ballot in October.

Chavez had planned to travel to North Korea, but later took it off his itinerary.