Venezuelan leader to sign Russian arms deal, despite US criticism

On a visit to the city of Izhevsk, where Kalashnikovs are made, Chavez said contracts to buy Su-30 jets and set up Kalashnikov rifle and ammunition plants in Venezuela would be signed in Moscow on Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.

Chavez, who has become a thorn in Washington's side with his anti-U.S. policies, is to sign a more than US$1 billion ( Ђ 790 million) deal for 30 Su-30 fighter jets and 30 helicopters, the Russian defense minister said last week.

The United States underlined its opposition to the sale Tuesday and urged Moscow to reconsider the contracts.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the arms purchases exceeded Venezuela's defensive needs and "are not helpful in terms of regional stability."

Russian officials did not comment on the U.S. criticism but the Foreign Ministry on Monday noted that its military-technical cooperation with Venezuela was developing successfully "in strict compliance" with its international obligations.

Chavez, a leftist former army lieutenant colonel who has frequently warned that the United States could invade to seize control of his country's rich oil and natural gas reserves, arrived in Russia on Tuesday for a three-day visit in which the highlight will be the signature of the arms deals.

He has used surging oil revenues to modernize Venezuela's military, signing multibillion-dollar defense deals with Russia and Spain. Venezuela earlier agreed to buy 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and wants to set up factories to produce them under license, the AP reports.

Chavez has courted foes and critics of Washington in what he calls an effort to create a global counterbalance to U.S. domination. He has crafted a socialist trade block with Cuba and Bolivia, signed a series of deals with Iran and supported North Korea's right to test-fire missiles.

The Venezuelan leader was arriving from neighboring Belarus, where he met with authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, a leader dubbed "Europe's last dictator" in Washington and European capitals.

Chavez, who is on a major international tour that will take him to Qatar, Iran and Mali, is also seeking support to secure a non-permanent U.N. Security Council seat.

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