Spain risks US anger by selling arms to Chavez

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The Independent Online

Spain's socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has been forced to defend a decision to sell arms worth €1.3bn (£900m) to the left-wing Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, in a deal condemned by the opposition as "a monstrous error".

In Spain's biggest arms deal for many years, its arms factories will supply 10 C-295 transport planes, four coastal patrol corvettes and four smaller coastguard patrol boats to Mr Chavez's army. Mr Zapatero said the vehicles would be used to monitor coastlines, combat terrorism and drug traffickers, and mount rescue operations during natural disasters. The deal was announced by the Spanish Prime Minister during a visit to Venezuela yesterday when he also met fellow left-wing leaders from Colombia and Brazil.

Spain's opposition leader, Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative Popular Party criticised the deal, said: "This is something the Spanish government should never have done. It has provoked criticism throughout the Venezuelan opposition. I think what Zapatero has done is absolutely irresponsible."

But Mr Zapatero insisted the equipment was solely for peaceful use. "None of this equipment has any offensive capability whatsoever," he said. In a veiled response to reservations expressed by the United States at recent Venezuelan arms purchases, he added that nobody should feel offended or have any objection to the proposed collaboration between Spain and Venezuela "that will benefit the people".

Washington has become deeply anxious about President Chavez's arms build-up. The Venezuelan leader recently bought weapons and equipment from Russia and Brazil. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he could not imagine why Venezuela, with an army of 34,000, wanted 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles, reportedly bought from Russia. "I am worried. I personally hope [that deal] doesn't happen. If it does, it won't be good for the hemisphere," Mr Rumsfeld said.

Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, is a major supplier to the US, but President George Bush strongly disapproves of President Chavez's left-wing populism. Wary that Mr Chavez might undermine American influence in the region, Washington backed a failed coup against him in April 2002 and has since described his government as authoritarian.

Mr Zapatero, who, on his election, withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq, has reversed the pro-American stance of his conservative predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar. Mindful of Spain's historic links with Latin America, Mr Zapatero has this week spearheaded Europe's first mission of solidarity with three progressive presidents of the region - Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Mr Chavez, joining their summit this week in Venezuela.

President Bush has been cool to Mr Zapatero since he was elected last year, and this latest initiative is unlikely to improve relations. But Mr Zapatero said that the purpose of the deal was only to fight terrorism and hunger. The boats and planes will be made by the Spanish division of the European aeronautical consortium, Eads. Spain is also to repair and build tankers for Venezuela.

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