Caracas, Venezuela (UPI) Nov 24, 2009
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is deploying 300 newly bought Russian tanks and armored vehicles and has called on Venezuelans to join Bolivarian militia in a marked military buildup seen as a continuation of his rhetoric the country is on a war footing and faces a threat from Colombian-U.S. military bases.
The Venezuelan leader has been buying weapons and forging new military alliances, including a wide-ranging agreement with Iran, in response to the perceived threat from Colombia. Both Colombia and the Obama administration have rejected Chavez's claims, stressing the bases are focused on anti-narcotics operations against drug cartels flooding North America with cocaine and heroin.
Chavez announced the arrival of a shipment of 300 Russian tanks and armored vehicles on television. "We are about to receive, and it's no secret, more than 300 tanks and armored vehicles from Russia. We are going to have T-72 tanks," Chavez said.
Analysts said the shipment is believed to include light tanks, armored cars as well as T-72 tanks. Russia confirmed the deal earlier, but the exact terms of the purchase were not revealed.
Analysts said Russia offered the military hardware on soft terms as part of its effort to build up military sales in Latin America. A Russian team that visited Argentina offered similar deals to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Chavez has hailed Russia as a "strategic ally," but analysts see the Russian sale as part of the wider effort by Moscow to boost arms sales in a region that was until recently the preserve of the U.S. arms manufacturers and exporters.
The military buildup coincides with mounting problems on Venezuela's energy front. Water and electricity shortages have become endemic and the state-managed oil industry has suffered in the wake of large-scale purges of personnel considered to be unsympathetic to the president's Bolivarian revolution.
The call for a national militia that is to include members of the ruling United Socialist Party followed arrests of critics of the government and closure or confiscation of privately owned media. Analysts said the expansion of the militia could signal an effort by Chavez to ensure loyalty and quell discontent over electricity and water shortages.
New legislation introduced by Chavez requires all citizens to volunteer for a combatant corps that will be trained to face all eventualities.
Details of the militia have not been revealed, but government media said at least 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles were part of the Russian arms shipments, along with 50 combat helicopters and other equipment.
Venezuela's ongoing quarrel with Colombia is likely to figure in the next meeting of the Union of South American nations. Unasur is expected to meet in Quito, Ecuador, later this month.
"There is growing concern over the delicate situation involving some country members of Unasur," Ecuadorian Foreign Affairs Minister Fander Falconi said in a statement. He said the dispute between Venezuela and Colombia and recent differences between Peru and Chile would top the agenda.
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