Saturday, July 22, 2006

Defense: Russia and Venezuela in billion dollar arms deal

Russia's Defence minister announced Friday a deal to sell Venezuela over a billion US dollars in jet fighters and military helicopters.

"The deal has been closed for the delivery of 30 Sujoi Su-30 jet fighters and for an equal number of helicopters" announced Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov adding the contract involved over a billion US dollars.

Caracas announced that the official ceremony for the signing of the contract will be held during Chavez's state visit to Russia which begins next week. The Venezuelan leader has said that his government decided to purchase Russian warplanes following the United States' refusal to sell replacement parts for the US build F-16 jet fighters that Venezuela acquired over two decades ago.

Large weapons purchases by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have been criticized repeatedly by the George Bush administration which has banned the sale of arms to the "destabilizing regime".

Venezuela's Defence Minister Adm. Orlando Maniglia said during a recent demonstration of the Sujoi Su-30's capabilities that it is "destined to become the backbone of Venezuelan aviation in the 21st century".

The Russian jet fighter will gradually replace the U.S. F-16s and the French Mirage-50s that have been in service for more than 20 years.Last year Venezuela purchased 10 Russian helicopters, models Mi-17, Mi-26 and Mi-35, as well as 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 rifles. Russian Army Chief of Staff Gen. Yuri Baluyevski recently announced Russia is willing to sell modern armaments to Venezuela despite US objections.

Baluyevski said the sale of Sujoi fighters "is not subject to any kind of restriction" which is why Russia is free to sell them to any country in the world. Russia last year talked about selling Venezuela submarines capable of launching cruise missiles.

Russia is most interested in selling Venezuela the three conventional submarines that the South American nation's navy wants to acquire as part of its weapons renovation program, Interfax reported last September.

The Bush administration, which has rough tense relations with the Chavez government, criticized last year's purchases of Russian armament expressing concern that some of the new assault rifles could end up in the hands of Colombian guerrilla groups. Venezuela argues it's in the process of re-equipping the armed forces, in full exercise of its sovereignty.