World News

China delivers Venezuela jets for anti-drugs fight

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela on Saturday tested six training and light attack jets bought from China for defense and anti-drugs flights in a deal that dodges an embargo banning sales of U.S. weapons parts to oil exporter Venezuela.

President Hugo Chavez ordered a total of 18 K-8 jets built by China after a plan to buy similar jets from Brazil’s Embraer fell through, apparently because they include U.S. electrical systems.

“Thank you, China. The empire wanted to leave us unarmed. Socialist China, revolutionary China appeared and here are our K-8 planes,” he said during a televised display of the jets’ capabilities.

Officials at the ceremony said the versatile jets will be used to train pilots and intercept drug traffickers who use Venezuela as a stop off point to take Colombian cocaine to the United States, Europe and Africa.

Washington accuses the socialist Chavez, a close ally of Cuba and Iran, of starting an arms race in South America, where several nations have beefed-up their military in the last few years.

Tensions with neighbor Colombia over U.S. access to military bases there and accusations that Chavez supports FARC guerrillas have raised concerns of a violent incident between the two countries.

Colombia is the region’s biggest military spender as a proportion of GDP because of its civil war with the leftist rebels.

OPEC member Venezuela has also bought a network of 10 radars from China and has spent about $4 billion on Russian weapons including fighter jets to replace F-16 planes that are rusting away because of the U.S. embargo, which started in 2006.

Chavez says he is simply modernizing Venezuela’s armed forces.

“With God’s help, Venezuela is going to be a socialist power,” Chavez said, adding that remaining K-8s were due this year. “We need to be well equipped and trained ... to protect our skies, our soil, our territory, which has one of the world’s biggest riches of water, oil, energy and gas.”

He said Venezuela had taken delivery of a navy patrol boat from Spain a few days ago and said the first of a batch of 92 Russian T-72 tanks ordered last year would arrive “soon.”

Unofficial reports say the Russian deal is worth up to $4 billion and may include S-300V air defense systems, Smerch multiple-launch rockets and howitzers.

Reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jackie Frank