Venezuela to receive 30,000 assault rifles, three helicopters from Russia by year's end

Russia will deliver 30,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and three helicopters to Venezuela by the year's end, Russian and Venezuelan officials said during talks Thursday.

The first 15,000 rifles will arrive Dec. 15, with an identical shipment to follow on Dec. 30, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov said.

They are to be the first weapons under a deal for 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-103 and AK-104 rifles signed by Venezuela in May. The remaining 70,000 rifles will arrive in March, Zhukov said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed concern the guns could fall into the hands of other groups, such as leftist Colombian rebels, and become a destabilizing force in South America.

But Venezuelan officials call that ridiculous and say the rifles will simply be used to replace outdated FAL rifles used by the Venezuelan military. Russian officials also have brushed aside U.S. criticism, saying they will go ahead with the arms deal.

Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the military agreements "are absolutely normal" and are a sovereign matter of Venezuela. He said three helicopters bought from Russia would arrive by the end of the year, AP reported. V.A.

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