CARACAS (Reuters) - Russia has agreed to lend Venezuela over $2 billion to purchase tanks and advanced anti-aircraft missiles in deals that show Moscow’s commitment to working closely with Washington-foe President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez said on Sunday the purchases agreed upon on a trip to Moscow last week included 92 tanks and an S-300 missile system that can shoot down fighter jets and cruise missiles.
Two years ago, Russia agreed to sell the same S-300 system to Iran but has dragged its feet over delivering the weapons amid U.S. and Israeli concerns they will be used to defend Iran’s nuclear installations.
The socialist Chavez, who claims the United States could attack Venezuela for its oil reserves, also reiterated that Moscow was helping Venezuela develop nuclear energy but said he had no intention of developing an atomic bomb.
“Let me be clear, Venezuela has no plans to invade anybody, or to be aggressive toward anybody,” Chavez said on his weekly television show after announcing the $2.2 billion loan. He did not say how much the new weapons cost.
A major oil exporter, Venezuela’s finances have suffered this year because of lower crude prices. Chavez said Venezuela needed to borrow the money for defense spending to avoid cuts in education and health.
In recent years, Venezuela has bought over $4 billion in weapons from Russia including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets. Critics say Venezuela is fueling an arms race in Latin America, but Chavez says he is modernizing the military for defensive purposes.
Venezuela is embroiled in a diplomatic dispute with Colombia over a deal to allow U.S. troops into more bases in the neighboring country to help fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.
Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, says the Colombian bases plan could be used to launch an attack on Venezuela and increases the risk of war in South America.
Last year, he ordered tanks to the Colombian border in a dispute over a Colombian bombing raid in Ecuadorean territory.
Chavez, who visited Moscow last week, said Venezuela was now buying 92 Russian T-72 tanks along with several types of missiles to build an air defense system.
He mentioned the Buk-M2 and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems and the Smerch rocket launcher. The S-300, also known as the SA-20, is an extremely effective anti-aircraft system capable of tracking 100 targets at once.
It can be used with missiles with a range of about 125 miles and can engage six targets simultaneously.
“With these rockets it’s going to be very difficult for foreign planes to come and bomb us,” Chavez said.
It was not immediately clear when Venezuela would receive the new weapons.
Russia signed a contract in 2007 to supply Iran with the S-300 system. Last week Russia dismissed rumors that a ship supposedly loaded with timber that went missing in the Atlantic in July had really been carrying a cargo of S-300s for Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly visited Russia on Thursday. Although Israel has not discussed the purpose of the trip it is thought he was discussing the S-300.
Chavez repeated on Sunday his commitment to developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes with the help of Russia and said he was opposed to nuclear weapons.
“With Russia we have created an atomic energy commission and I tell the world — Venezuela is going to start developing nuclear energy, but we are not going to make an atomic bomb.”
Russia agreed last year to help restart Venezuela’s nuclear program. Venezuela has one mothballed experimental nuclear reactor built decades ago. Experts say it will take many years for the South American country to produce atomic energy.
Last week, New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said he suspected Venezuela was helping Iran’s nuclear program through its banking system.
Chavez, an ally of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often jokes that Washington thinks Iranian built dairies and bicycle factories in Venezuela are really producing weapons.
Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Patricia Rondon, editing by Philip Barbara and Todd Eastham