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U.S. 'Troubled' by Venezuela Deals

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department said late last week that it is "extremely troubled" by Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia, signaling concern that some of the weaponry might be turned over to leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia.

Spokesman Adam Ereli said weaponry could have a "destabilizing effect" on the hemisphere. He added that the United States has raised the issue with Russia on a number of occasions.

Russia reportedly has agreed to sell high performance MiG jet fighters and AK-47 rifles to Venezuela. The issue is almost certain to arise when U.S. President George W. Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin in two weeks in Slovakia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said he is neutral in the conflict in Colombia between the government and two leftist rebel groups, known by their Spanish initials FARC and ELN. Ereli said Chavez has adopted a "tolerant" attitude toward these groups, both of which have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department. "We have serious concerns about how Venezuela will secure these armaments and the thousands of rifles they will replace," Ereli said Thursday.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday shrugged off Washington's concerns, saying the deal was a bilateral issue in line with international law.

"There is nothing to comment about," Lavrov told reporters. "This is part of bilateral ties between Russia and Venezuela, and it doesn't contradict any international norms or international obligations of Russia and Venezuela."

Interfax on Friday also quoted an unidentified Russian diplomat who said that Moscow was surprised to hear the U.S. complaints against the deal, describing them as "biased and unfounded."

Retired General Leonid Ivashev, the former head of the Defense Ministry's international military cooperation department, said that by complaining against the deal, Washington was seeking to sideline a competitor in the arms market. "This is an attempt to make Russia feel humiliated and show the world that Russia is subject to U.S. policy," Ivashev said, Interfax reported. "This policy is aimed not only at squeezing Russia out of the weapons market, but at reducing its political influence in the region of Latin America and the whole world."

Chavez has developed friendly ties with Putin and expressed a strong interest in purchasing Russian weapons. The Venezuelan ambassador to Moscow, Carlos Mendoza Pottella, angrily dismissed U.S. objections against Russian weapons sales to his nation on Friday.

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