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South American officials meet to avoid arms crisis

QUITO (Reuters) - With tensions running high over a U.S. military pact with Colombia and Venezuela’s plan to buy $2 billion in Russian weapons, South American defense officials met on Tuesday to try to avoid an arms crisis.

The UNASUR group of nations is calling for transparency in defense deals to calm tensions between Colombia’s conservative government and its socialist neighbors in the Andean region.

“It is very important that there is a full, detailed discussion of arms purchases as well as guarantees and confidence mechanisms,” Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez said at Tuesday’s UNASUR meeting in Quito.

Venezuela said it would share information about its weapons purchases, but accused neighboring Colombia of secrecy in its deal to allow U.S. troops access to up to seven of its bases.

“We have seen neither the bold nor the fine print of the accord and of course this generates worries,” Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Charrizalez told reporters at the meeting.

Ecuador cut diplomatic ties with Colombia last year after President Alvaro Uribe, Washington’s main South American ally, ordered the bombing of a Colombian rebel camp on Ecuador’s side of the border.

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The United States has provided more than $6 billion in mostly military and anti-narcotics aid to Colombia over the last nine years and the two countries plan to deepen their cooperation with an expanded security agreement that has sent political shock waves through the region.

Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa says any more cross-border raids by Colombia will be met with a military response.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced U.S. concern that Venezuela’s plan to buy more Russian weapons, including tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, could set off 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,” she said at a press conference with visiting Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez.

Tabare Vazquez said the arms race had already begun and was using up scarce resources in a region of widespread poverty.

Colombia says its expanded pact with the U.S. military is aimed at helping the fight against drug trafficking.

But Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy, says the bases could be used to launch an attack on his country.

In recent years, Venezuela has bought over $4 billion in weapons from Russia, including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets.

On Sunday Chavez said he was buying an advanced S-300 missile defense system and 92 tanks with a $2.2 billion credit from Moscow.

Brazil is planning a similar deal with France, while Ecuador and Chile recently beefed up their air forces with new equipment. Bolivia is planning to buy new combat planes and helicopters from France and Russia.

Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra and Alexandra Valencia, writing by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel

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