Venezuela to receive 3 helicopters, 30,000 assault rifles from Russia

Russia will deliver 30,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and three helicopters to Venezuela by the year's end as part of a wider arms deal and cooperation, Russian and Venezuelan officials said. Fifteen thousand rifles will arrive Dec. 15, with as many to follow on Dec. 30, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov said after talks in Caracas on Thursday.

The shipments will be the first under a wider agreement, signed in May by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government, for 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-103 and AK-104 rifles. The remaining 70,000 rifles will be delivered in March, Zhukov said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed concern the guns could fall into the hands of groups such as Colombia's leftist rebels. Venezuelan officials, however, call that ridiculous and urged the U.S. not to meddle in Venezuela's affairs. They insisted that the new rifles would merely replace outdated army weaponry.

"What the U.S. elite want is to avoid us having relations with Russia or with China, or with France or with India," Chavez said.

"They try to have a uni-polar world, and we want a pluri-polar model," said Chavez, who has clashed repeatedly with U.S. government which he calls "imperialist."

Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, said it's important to recall "how much good it did the world, just for the Soviet Union to exist as a balance."

With the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, he said, "all of the cavalry charges of U.S. imperialism came against us."

He spoke after Russian and Venezuelan officials signed an agreement pledging greater cooperation in areas including trade, oil, electricity and military technology.

Three helicopters bought from Russia will arrive by the end of the year, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said.

Russia agreed to sell Venezuela's military 10 helicopters in March, including Mi-17s, Mi-35s and one Mi-26T, for US$120 million (Ђ102 million). A Venezuelan general announced a deal for five additional Mi-17 helicopters in June for US$81 million (Ђ69 million).

Both Rangel and Zhukov said they expect the trade to increase in the coming years as Russia and Venezuela broaden cooperation in areas from oil industry to mining.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and has sought foreign firms' involvement in various oil projects.

Trade between Russia and Venezuela neared US$65.5 million (Ђ55.7 million) in the past 10 months, and in the future could increase fivefold, Rangel said.

The Venezuelan vice president extended a formal invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the South American country, saying the two governments have "excellent relations." Chavez visited Moscow last year, reports the AP. I.L.

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