Gates, ahead of Latam trip, to sign Brazil accord

Thu Apr 8, 2010 8:49pm EDT

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* Gates to travel to Colombia, Peru, Caribbean

* US-Brazil defense accord first of its kind since 1970s

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, April 8 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will sign a defense accord with Brazil and then travel to South America next week, looking to strengthen ties in a region being courted by Iran, China and Russia.

Gates will sign the agreement on Monday with Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim in Washington, a senior U.S. defense official said on Thursday, confirming plans announced by Jobim and diplomats earlier in the week. [ID:nN07146925].

He will travel to Colombia, Peru and attend a Caribbean security conference in Barbados that same week.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, described the agreement with Brazil as a "huge deal," establishing the first framework of its kind in more than 30 years for defense ties between the two countries.

Still, tense issues like Iran were likely to loom large when Jobim and Gates meet at the Pentagon. Brazil has so far rejected U.S. calls to support a new round of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva plans to visit Tehran in May, after receiving Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year.

"I think the Secretary will state the U.S. position on (the Iran) issue to Minister Jobim," the U.S. official said.

Brazil has also sent out signals that it might pass over a bid by U.S. company Boeing (BA.N) to build its next generation of fight jets. The Pentagon has argued the multibillion dollar deal could bring the two militaries closer together.

"We would like the Brazilians to choose (Boeing's) Super Hornet, which would add to our strategic relationship," the U.S. official said.

U.S. NOT "DISENGAGED"

The United States has been accused of not paying enough attention to Latin America due to policy priorities in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as Tehran makes inroads with the region's leftist leaders, and as Russia and China deepen trade ties.

"We remain very much engaged in the region -- notwithstanding sort of perceptions that we are somehow not interested, or neglect(ful), disengaged, which is simply not true," the U.S. official said.

"That will be part of the message the secretary will take ... to all of the countries that he will be visiting."

Washington has spoken with Latin American allies about the accord with Brazil -- a move likely to stem confusion like the kind that erupted last year over an agreement with Colombia.

The agreement with Bogota, signed last year, allowed U.S. troops expanded use of Colombian bases. It initially raised eyebrows in the region and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez branded it part of a U.S. plot for an invasion.

Chavez, who is ramping up military purchases from Russia and China, has accused U.S. military jets of making illegal incursions into Venezuelan airspace and "provoking us." Washington strongly denies the claims.

Washington, in turn, accuses Chavez's government of supporting FARC guerrillas waging war against the Colombian government.

The U.S. official said Gates, in meetings in Colombia and Peru, would likely discuss Chavez.

"We will obviously state our position with respect to Venezuela, but what we won't do is fall into the trap or be provoked by the rhetoric," the official said.

The official said Gates would raise concerns about human rights in Colombia and express support in Peru for its fight against the cocaine trade and a remnant group of Shining Path rebels. (Editing by Philip Barbara)

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