Spain signs deal to sell military planes, boats to Venezuela

Spain agreed to sell 12 military planes and eight boats to Venezuela on Monday in a US$2 billion deal that has drawn sharp opposition from Washington, which has threatened to block the sale on grounds it involves U.S. parts and technology.

Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a ceremony where officials signed Spain's largest-ever defense deal.

The U.S. government, often critical of Chavez and his leftist policies, last week threatened to block the transfer of U.S. components in the planes and boats.

Venezuelan Vice Adm. Armando Laguna said if the U.S. parts need to be changed, they can be replaced with others made in France, Italy or Germany.

"We'll change the equipment if their export isn't approved or if they don't grant the export license," said Laguna, adding that the U.S. components "aren't vital really."

The deal includes four ocean patrol boats and four coast patrol vessels from Spain's state-controlled shipyard Navantia, plus 10 C-295 transport planes and two CN-235 patrol planes supplied by Spanish aircraft producer EADS-Casa, officials said.

Bono said there is no reason to object to the deal.

"This is not a warplane. They are transport planes," the Spanish minister said, adding that the boats "have no weapons to attack."

Chavez on Sunday commended Spanish authorities for rejecting "the attempts to crush (the deal) and the lack of respect of the imperialist government of the United States."

He has said that the vessels and planes will be used to combat the drug trade in Venezuela, which borders Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer.

The United States alleges that Chavez, an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, supports radical political movements in Latin America and is "destabilizing" to the region.

Relations between Spain and the United States have also chilled under Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who withdrew Spanish peacekeeping troops from Iraq immediately after he took office in April 2004.

Spain has said the sale should not harm its relations with the United States.

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