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2008-09-10

Venezuela announces plans for military exercises with Russia

By Simon Romero and Clifford J. Levy

CARACAS, Venezuela: Chafing at the reactivation in recent weeks of an American naval fleet in Latin American waters, President Hugo Chávez said Sunday that Venezuela could engage in naval exercises with Russian ships in the Caribbean before the end of the year.

Chávez's words echoed news reports here over the weekend that four warships with as many as 1,000 sailors from Russia's Pacific Fleet could take part in a training exercise in November off Venezuela's coast. Salvatore Cammarata Bastidas, Venezuela's chief of naval intelligence, said the exercises were aimed at strengthening military ties.

"Go ahead and squeal, Yanquis," Chávez said in a mocking tone on his Sunday television program, adding, "Russia's naval fleet is welcome here." But Chávez qualified his remarks by saying that planning for the maneuvers was in the "preparation phase," pending decisions by the Russian government. Official confirmation of the exercises was not available from Moscow; Russian military officials released no information on Sunday about planned naval maneuvers.

But after the war in Georgia, the Kremlin has expressed increasing frustration over the presence of NATO and American ships in the Black Sea. On Saturday, after an American ship delivered humanitarian aid to Georgia at its Black Sea port of Poti, President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia suggested that the United States was encroaching on Russia's sphere of influence.

A few days before the conflict in Georgia, Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, announced that Russia would bolster its relations with Cuba, Venezuela's top ally. But Russian officials at the same time denied that they would deploy military hardware there.

Venezuela has gone out of its way to strengthen relations with Russia. In addition to welcoming Russian investment, Chávez has emerged as a major buyer of Russian arms. Last month, he also backed Russia's recognition of two Georgian breakaway regions.

Chávez has framed his warming to Russia within his government's concern over the reactivation in July of the United States Navy's Fourth Fleet in Latin American waters after a five-decade lull.

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