WASHINGTON U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern on Tuesday about what she said was the growing number of arms purchases by Venezuela and the potential for an arms race in the region.
"We have expressed concerned about the number of Venezuelan arms purchases. They outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise questions as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region," Clinton told reporters after a meeting with Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez.
The State Department said on Monday that President Hugo Chavez' announcement that Russia would loan Venezuela $2.2 billion to purchase 92 tanks and advanced anti-aircraft missiles might spur other countries to add arms.
Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, also set alarm bells ringing in Washington when he announced this month that Venezuela would step up energy sector cooperation with Iran, another U.S. foe.
In recent years, Venezuela has bought over $4 billion in weapons from Russia including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets. Critics say Chavez is gearing up for an arms race in Latin America, but he says he is modernizing the military for defensive purposes.
Clinton urged Venezuela to be more "transparent" about its weapons purchase policies.
"They should be putting in place procedures and practices to ensure that the weapons they buy are not diverted to insurgent groups or organizations like drug trafficking gangs and other cartels," Clinton said.
"So there is concern that we have expressed and will continue to raise with other countries in the region. And we hope that we can see a change in behavior and attitude on the part of the Venezuelan Government," Clinton said.
Venezuela is embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with neighboring Colombia over its security agreement with Washington that will allow U.S. troops into more Colombian bases to help fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.
With tensions running high over the U.S.-Colombia military pact and Venezuela's plan to buy more Russian weapons, South American defense officials met on Tuesday in Quito to try to avoid an arms crisis.
Chavez says the Colombian bases plan could be used to launch an attack on Venezuela and increases the risk of war in South America.
A senior State Department official, speaking on background, said the U.S. concern over Venezuela's arms purchases had been growing for some time, although the Russian purchase deal had thrown it into sharper relief.
"It's an accumulation of a number of contacts that they've had with countries outside of the hemisphere," the official said.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, editing by Anthony Boadle)