Venezuela's Chávez arrives in Russia for arms talks

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez arrived in Moscow on Tuesday, kicking off a European tour with a two-day visit to Russia expected to focus on arms purchases and tightening ties with the Kremlin.

An outspoken critic of the United States, Chávez was to meet with both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose foreign policy has been increasingly frosty toward Washington in recent years.

“Russia and Venezuela must become strategic allies in the oil sphere and in military-technical cooperation,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Chávez as saying upon arrival.

“This will guarantee the sovereignty of Venezuela, because we are now threatened by the United States,” he added.

Chávez was greeted by officials after his plane landed three hours late, a journalist at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport said.

His visit to Russia is the first leg of a European tour that will take in Belarus, Portugal and Spain. Chávez was originally due to arrive on Monday but the visit was postponed by one day.

Chávez’s talks with Russian officials are widely expected to focus on arms purchases, which if signed would tighten Moscow’s relationship with one of Washington’s fiercest critics.

“We expect the signing of a range of contracts in this sphere,” a member of the Venezuelan delegation was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying on Tuesday. He added that purchases could include Russian tanks and submarines.

Chávez is also expected to discuss non-military projects involving Russian aluminium giant Rusal, gas giant Gazprom and oil firm Lukoil, the respected Kommersant daily newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Earlier, a Russian arms industry source told Interfax that Venezuela was planning to buy 20 Tor-M1 air-defence systems and three submarines for a total value of $1-billion.

Officials are also set to continue discussions on building a Kalashnikov factory and a training centre for helicopter pilots in Venezuela, the Gazeta daily reported on Monday.

Moscow and Caracas have already signed $4-billion-worth of arms contracts in recent years, Vyacheslav Davydenko, a spokesperson for Russian arms export monopoly Rosoboronexport, told Interfax on Monday.

Kommersant said a complicating factor in the arms talks could be Venezuela’s relationship with its neighbour Colombia, which accuses Chávez of aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a rebel group.

If Chavez hopes to buy Igla short-range rockets, Moscow could require him to sign documents “that would legally not allow Caracas to secretly pass on the Russian weapons to third countries”, the newspaper said.

“If Russian weapons surface in the conflict zone, Moscow would be threatened not only with a significant worsening of relations with Bogota, but with Washington too,” Kommersant said, without citing any sources.—AFP

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