MIAMI — Venezuela's recent purchase of the most lethal shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in the Russian arsenal is sharpening U.S. concerns that parts of President Hugo Chavez's massive weapons buildup could wind up in the hands of terrorists or guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.
Washington's unease is well-founded, U.S. government officials say, because of credible evidence that three top Venezuelan officials offered Colombia's FARC rebels weapons, money and contacts to buy anti-aircraft missiles in 2007.
Such missiles in the hands of the FARC would mark a steep escalation of the 45-year-old conflict in Colombia, where government forces in recent years have deployed a fleet of slow-moving ground-attack warplanes and U.S.-built helicopters to deal devastating blows to rebel jungle camps.
"We are concerned about Venezuelan arms purchases that exceed its needs and are therefore potentially destabilizing," State Department spokeswoman Sara Mangiaracina said. "The Man-Portable Air Defense Systems Venezuela have purchased from Russia are sophisticated weapons systems. It is important that these weapons systems be appropriately controlled to avoid the possibility of diversion."
Financed by high oil prices, Chavez has been on a weapons-buying binge since 2006, purchasing more than $4 billion worth of Russian Sukhoi jets, Mi helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles for what he says is the professionalization of his 62,000-member armed forces and the defense of his "socialist revolution" from U.S. aggression.
U.S. officials have long voiced concerns about the weapons buildup. "I can't imagine what's going to happen to those 100,000 (Kalashnikovs), and I can't imagine that if it did happen, that it would be good for the hemisphere," then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in 2005.
But the purchase of the SA-24 man-portable missiles _ the most sophisticated version manufactured in Russia _ spiked U.S. anxiety.
The missile and launcher weigh just 42 pounds, can hit targets flying at up to 19,500 feet, employ a "fire and forget" system that is highly resistant to countermeasures, has night-vision capability and is easy to maintain, U.S. military experts said. Previously, Venezuela only had pedestal-mounted Swedish RBS-70 and French Mistral surface-to-air missiles.
Chavez's press office did not respond to faxed requests for comments.
Until recently, Venezuela's purchase of the SA-24s had been mentioned in public only once and briefly, in a November Russian defense industry report noting "plans" for a sale. One former Bush administration official, who requested anonymity to speak about the sensitive issue, said he recalled reports of missiles in Venezuela, but no confirmation.
But on April 19, during the Venezuelan armed forces' annual parade in Caracas, Chavez made a point of halting the march from the reviewing stand to address a unit of about 50 soldiers carrying missiles on their shoulders.
"We have decided to make this brief halt in the parade to highlight the importance that this new unit has for the sovereignty and defense of the country," he declared, identifying the weapons as SA-24s and boasting about their speed and weight. "We are a peaceful country. The revolution is peaceful. ... We do not want war but we are required to be capable of defending ourselves."
Addressing Chavez, the captain who commanded the unit described it as "part of the process of strengthening and transforming our revolutionary, anti-imperialist and socialist" armed forces.
U.S. military officials were careful in describing their concerns. "It's been our position that we don't consider Venezuela a military threat," said Col. Bill Costello, spokesman for the Pentagon's Miami-based Southern Command.
But, Costello added, "weapons proliferation in the region poses a long-term threat to security, and any potential illegal transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups such as the FARC in Colombia remains a concern."
That concern was highlighted in September, when the U.S. Treasury Department accused three top Chavez government officials of helping the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, with weapons, finances and drug-trafficking.
Former Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin was accused of helping the FARC obtain weapons, and was described as the Chavez government's "main weapons contact for the FARC." Treasury also alleged he tried to facilitate a $250 million loan from the Venezuelan government to the FARC in late 2007.
Gen. Hugo Carvajal, head of Venezuela's military intelligence, and Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, head of the secret police, were accused of protecting FARC-linked drug shipments out of Colombia. The accusation was part of a move to freeze any assets the men had in the United States. It was not known whether any assets were seized.
Treasury's allegations were based on information gleaned from FARC computers and digital memory devices captured March 1, 2008, when Colombian forces raided a rebel camp in neighboring Ecuador and killed the FARC's No. 2 commander, Luis Edgar Devia, better known as Raul Reyes. Many of the digital documents were later published in the Colombian media. Chavez has insisted they were fraudulent and denied their content. Interpol examined the files and declared they had not been tampered with.
One e-mail between rebel commanders dated Jan. 4, 2007, reported that Venezuelan military and FARC officials had met and discussed "taking advantage of the Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia to include some containers" for the rebels. Another said Rodriguez Chacin had "suggested a mechanism for meeting with the Australians." Another, dated Sept. 6, 2007, says FARC officials had met with two Australian arms dealers who offered "the missiles" and other weapons "at very favorable prices."
Yet another reported that Carvajal had offered to deliver 20 "bazookas" to the FARC. Several more referred to Rodriguez Chacin and the $250 million loan.
One e-mail between rebel commanders showed they desperately wanted the man-portable missiles to counter the Colombian armed forces' control of the air. "The anti-aircraft weapons are already for us an urgent necessity," it said.
Washington has similar concerns about Nicaragua, which has a stockpile of about 600 Russian-made man-portable anti-aircraft missiles _ of the older and less lethal SA-7 model _ left over from the 1980s, when the ruling Sandinista Front was allied with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
About 20 SA-7s, hundreds of AK-47s and other weapons were discovered in 1993 in a secret warehouse under a Managua car repair shop after an apparently accidental explosion of stored munitions. Nicaraguan investigators concluded the stash belonged to leftist Salvadoran guerrillas.
Nicaragua voluntarily destroyed about 1,400 SA-7s since the early 1990s, after the end of the conflict with U.S.-backed "contra" guerrillas.
U.S. officials are still pushing for the destruction of the remaining 600 _ and offering some enticements.
"There is an offer that is still valid," the U.S. ambassador in Managua, Robert J. Callahan, said in a statement. "In return for the destruction of 600 or so missiles, we are still very willing to give $5 million for the rehabilitation of the Children's Hospital La Mascota in Managua."
© 2009 McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Reprinted Via Newscom.
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