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US Navy cmdr dismisses Russia bombers as US threat

Thursday, September 11, 2008

ABOARD THE USS KEARSARGE —  The commander of the U.S. Navy's Fourth Fleet said Thursday his forces were keeping an eye on Russian Blackjack bombers that have landed in Venezuela for training exercises _ but he dismissed the deployment as a major challenge to the United States.

The arrival of Russian Tu-160 bombers was the first such deployment to the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War and seemed certain to further strain Russia's relations with the United States. It came after the U.S. sent warships to deliver aid to U.S.-allied Georgia after its war last month with Russia.

But Rear Adm. Joseph Kernan said the Fourth Fleet had no immediate plans to change its operations because of the bombers.

"In my mind if the Russians flew those aircraft down to this region because of a threat from the U.S., then I think they wasted gas," Kernan told The Associated Press in an interview aboard the USS Kearsarge, which was off the coast of Haiti helping with hurricane relief efforts.

Still, he said the Fourth Fleet would be watchful.

"It does make us take a second look because it's something new flying in here," Kernan said. "We're always going to be careful about who's out there and what could potentially be a threat."

The Russian Air Force said Thursday that the bombers carried no live weapons on their flight to Venezuela _ nuclear or otherwise. Air Force spokesman Vladimir Drik said the planes would return to Russia next Monday after conducting a series of flights over the Caribbean from a Venezuelan base.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to indicate that the deployment was a response to the U.S. Navy's presence in the Black Sea.

"God forbid from engaging in any kind of controversy in the American continent; this is considered the 'holiest of the holy,'" Putin said during a meeting with Western political scholars at his Black Sea residence in Sochi. "And they drive ships with weapons to a place just 10 kilometers from where we're at? Is this normal? Is this an equitable move?"

Russia is also sending a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela in November for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean. Kernan said he did not know what the Fourth Fleet's strategic plans would be that month, but that it would avoid any interference with the exercises.

"Clearly, navies are always interested in keeping track of where everyone else is," he said. "Will we have someone around to monitor those? I don't know at this point. But we're certainly not going to try to get in the middle of it and disrupt it."

Both Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have expressed concern about the U.S. Navy's decision early this year to re-establish the Fourth Fleet to direct naval forces in the Caribbean and Latin America. The Fourth Fleet was active during World War II but was dissolved in 1950.

Chavez has called it a threat to the region, while Silva has expressed concerned about Fourth Fleet ships patrolling waters near newly discovered oil reserves off Brazil.

On Thursday, Chavez called the Russian planes' presence a "warning" to Washington.

Although the bombers were only scheduled to be in the area for patrols lasting several days, Chavez nevertheless said they would help Venezuela keep an eye on the Fourth Fleet, and "if it lifts a finger we'll know."

Kernan dismissed the concerns of both Chavez and Silva, saying the fleet's priorities are anti-drug operations and humanitarian missions. The fleet will enter another country's coastal waters or rivers only as part of joint missions or training exercises, and it has no intention of checking out Brazil's oil reserves, he added.

"They got it wrong," he said. "We have no aspirations for anyone's oil. If we want to get oil from Venezuela we'll negotiate and buy it from them, and with Brazil it's the same way."

Kernan said relations between the U.S. and Brazilian navies are smooth and he hopes for increased cooperation, including joint operations.

"What you hear from Brazil in the press sometimes is not what we hear from the leadership," he said.


Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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