Monday, June 1, 2009

Venezuela has U.S. on edge.

Missile buildup in Venezuela has U.S. on edge...

Venezuela's recent weapons-buying binge has stoked U.S. fears that portable missile launchers could end up in the hands of Colombia's FARC rebels.

Venezuela's recent purchase of the most lethal shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in the Russian arsenal is sharpening U.S. concerns that parts of President Hugo Chávez's massive weapons buildup could wind up in the hands of terrorists or guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

Washington's unease is well-founded, U.S. government officials say, because of credible evidence that three top Venezuelan officials offered Colombia's FARC rebels weapons, money and contacts to buy anti-aircraft missiles in 2007.

Such missiles in the hands of the FARC would mark a steep escalation of the 45-year-old conflict in Colombia, where government forces in recent years have deployed a fleet of slow-moving ground-attack warplanes and U.S.-built helicopters to deal devastating blows to rebel jungle camps.

''We are concerned about Venezuelan arms purchases that exceed its needs and are therefore potentially destabilizing,'' State Department spokeswoman Sara Mangiaracina said. ``The Man-Portable Air Defense Systems Venezuela have purchased from Russia are sophisticated weapons systems. It is important that these weapons systems be appropriately controlled to avoid the possibility of diversion.''

Financed by high oil prices, Chávez has been on a weapons-buying binge since 2006, purchasing more than $4 billion worth of Russian Sukhoi jets, Mi helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles for what he says is the professionalization of his 62,000-member armed forces and the defense of his ''socialist revolution'' from U.S. aggression.

U.S. officials have long voiced concerns about the weapons buildup. ''I can't imagine what's going to happen to those 100,000 [Kalashnikovs] and I can't imagine that if it did happen, that it would be good for the hemisphere,'' then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in 2005.

But the purchase of the SA-24 man-portable missiles -- the most sophisticated version manufactured in Russia -- spiked U.S. anxiety.

The missile and launcher weigh just 42 pounds, can hit targets flying at up to 19,500 feet, employ a ''fire and forget'' system that is highly resistant to countermeasures, has night-vision capability and is easy to maintain, U.S. military experts said. Previously, Venezuela only had pedestal-mounted Swedish RBS-70 and French Mistral surface-to-air missiles.

Chávez's press office did not respond to faxed requests for comments.

Until last month, Venezuela's purchase of the SA-24s had been mentioned in public only once and briefly, in a November Russian defense industry report noting ''plans'' for a sale. One former Bush administration official, who requested anonymity to speak about the sensitive issue, said he recalled reports of missiles in Venezuela, but no confirmation.

But on April 19, during the Venezuelan armed forces' annual parade in Caracas, Chávez made a point of halting the march from the reviewing stand to address a unit of about 50 soldiers carrying missiles on their shoulders.

''We have decided to make this brief halt in the parade to highlight the importance that this new unit has for the sovereignty and defense of the country,'' he declared, identifying the weapons as SA-24s and boasting about their speed and weight. "We are a peaceful country. The revolution is peaceful . . . We do not want war but we are required to be capable of defending ourselves."

Addressing Chávez, the captain who commanded the unit described it as "part of the process of strengthening and transforming our revolutionary, anti-imperialist and socialist" armed forces.

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