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* Foreign reserves brought home on Chavez orders
* Delivery landed at airport amid tight security
* More than $11 billion worth of gold eventually coming in
By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS, Nov 25 (Reuters) - The first shipment of gold bars arrived home in Venezuela on Friday after President Hugo Chavez ordered that almost all of the country’s foreign bullion reserves be repatriated from Western bank vaults.
Experts had cautioned the operation, which eventually will transport more than 160 tonnes of ingots worth more than $11 billion to Venezuela — will be risky, slow and expensive.
Central Bank chief Nelson Merentes did not say how much gold was brought back in Friday’s shipment.
The bars were unloaded at Maiquetia International Airport and driven across the runway, pulled on pallets with an armed soldier riding on top, before being transferred to several gray armored cars for the journey to Caracas.
“The gold comes from several European countries,” Merentes told reporters at the airport.
“We cannot give exact dates (for when the rest of the bars will arrive) due to questions of security. When we bring the last shipment, the people will learn about it.”
Chavez announced the repatriation in August as a “sovereign” step that would help protect Venezuela’s foreign reserves from economic turbulence in the United States and Europe. Most of Venezuela’s gold held abroad is in London.
It also was seen as a populist measure ahead of a presidential election next October, when the socialist leader will seek another six-year term.
Chavez said he had ordered the National Guard to keep a close eye on the first shipment after it landed.
“They say Chavez is going to take the gold to Miraflores (presidential palace) and is going to give it to Cuba as a gift,” the president chuckled on Friday, mocking political rivals who accuse him of planning to sell the ingots to fill his electoral warchest ahead of next year’s ballot.
“The gold is returning to where it was always meant to be: the vaults of the Central Bank of Venezuela.”
A senior government source involved in transporting the bars, which amount to 90 percent of Venezuela’s gold held abroad, has told Reuters they will be shipped in several cargo flights that will be completed before the end of the year.
The total cost of the operation will be no more than $9 million, the source said, without elaborating.
Next year’s vote is likely to be a hard fought and contentious and some critics suggest Chavez is worried Venezuela’s foreign reserves being frozen by sanctions — as happened to his friend and ally, Libya’s late Muammar Gaddafi.
By repatriating the bullion, he also reduces the risk of any seizure of assets related to arbitration cases, including those linked to the nationalization of multibillion-dollar oil projects run by big U.S. companies.
More than 60 percent of Venezuela’s international reserves are in gold. That is nearly eight times the regional average of just over 8 percent, and twice that of the second highest in Latin America, Ecuador. (Editing by Bill Trott)