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Russia, Venezuela launch joint naval operations

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (2nd L) inspect on November 27, 2008 the Russian frigate Admiral Chabanenko in Caracas. Medvedev visited Russian warships with Chavez, giving a symbolic kickstart to joint maneuvers in the US backyard. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Caracas (AFP) Dec 1, 2008
Venezuelan and Russian warships began joint naval operations Monday in the Caribbean Sea, close to US waters, the Venezuelan army indicated.

The three-day exercises mark the first time a Russian fleet has been in Latin America, often described as the "backyard" of the United States, since the end of the Cold War.

Some 1,600 Russians and 700 Venezuelans on four Russian ships and a dozen Venezuelan vessels will participate in the maneuvers, called "VenRus 2008." The exercises include navigation, rescue, communication and aerial defense simulation operations.

The Russian ships, including the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, left the port of La Guaira, north of Caracas, at dawn, military sources told AFP.

Their destination was not revealed due to security concerns.

"This series of exercises aims to evaluate the skills and capabilities of the fleets of both nations to fight against terrorism and drug trafficking," said Russian vice admiral Ivanovic Kolorof, commander of the Northern Fleet, who also extended an invitation for Venezuela to conduct joint maneuvers in the Russian waters of the North Sea.

The operations came on the heels of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's tour of left-leaning Latin American countries that sought to restore Cold War-era ties and has been portrayed as a rebuke of US moves in formally Communist nations in Eastern Europe, including a controversial missile defense plan.

Russian officials have repeatedly denied the exercises are aimed at "third countries," and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal opponent of the US, rejected talk of provocation.

Medvedev said he wants to restore "privileged relations" with Latin American countries that had close ties to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, when fierce superpower rivalry played out in the region.

But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed the impact of the arrival of the Russian ships.

"A few Russian ships is not going to change the balance of power," she said.

Russia has been a major arms supplier to Venezuela, prompting concern from the United States and its ally Colombia about a potential arms race and regional destabilization.

Both countries have signed 4.4 billion dollars in bilateral arms deals since 2005, including radars, 24 Sukhoi-30 planes, 50 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikovs.

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