Venezuela to spend $82 million on Chinese K-8 jets

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela will spend $82 million on a second batch of Chinese K-8 military training aircraft, President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday.

Chavez’s socialist government has ordered 18 of the light attack and training planes from China, and the Latin American country received the first six jets in March.

“We have approved $82 million for the second batch of Chinese-made K-8 jets. The aircraft are for the security and defense of the country,” the Venezuelan president said during his regular television program.

The United States, which accuses Chavez, a close ally of Cuba and Iran, of sparking an arms race across South America, imposed an embargo in 2006 on sales of U.S. weapons parts to the OPEC nation.

Chavez has said he wants to buy a fleet of 40 K-8s. He ordered 18 of them from China after a plan to buy similar jets from a Brazilian company fell through, apparently because they included U.S. electrical systems.

It was not immediately clear how many of the aircraft would be included in the second group, or when they would arrive.

Venezuelan officials said in March the versatile jets would be used to train local pilots and intercept drug traffickers who use the country as a stop-off point to smuggle Colombian cocaine to the United States, Europe and Africa.

Venezuela has also bought a network of Chinese radars and spent about $4 billion on Russian weapons, including tanks, missile systems and fighter jets, to replace F-16 planes that are rusting because of the U.S. embargo.

Chavez said he was simply modernizing his armed forces.

“Today, China has become one of the biggest allies of Venezuela, and Venezuela is one of the biggest allies of China in the world,” he said.

Chinese companies are involved in the exploration of Venezuela’s vast Orinoco heavy crude belt, and Beijing says it is also providing $20 billion of long-term financing for projects in the South American oil exporter.

Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Peter Cooney