Tue, May 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Venezuela could sell F-16s to Iran, Hugo Chavez says


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his country is looking to buy new warplanes from Russia and will offer its fleet of 21 US-made F-16 fighter jets to any country it chooses, including Iran.

Chavez said on Sunday that he is considering buying an unspecified number of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 jet fighters.

"The Sukhoi 30 and Sukhoi 35 are very superior to the F-16s," said Chavez, who earlier described the Russian planes as "100 times better" and said he hoped to finalize a deal during an upcoming trip to Moscow.

Chavez mentioned the possibility of selling the F-16s in a speech late on Saturday in rural eastern Venezuela, backing a suggestion by one of his top generals that Iran could be a possible buyer.

Chavez noted that the adviser, General Alberto Muller, had suggested the possibility last week in response to Washington's refusal to sell parts to upgrade the fighter jets.

"So Muller said, `Let's sell them to Iran.' That could be," Chavez said, according to a partial transcript released on Sunday.

Chavez rejected US claims that Venezuela is legally bound by a contract to seek US permission to sell the F-16s.

"Now they say in the United States that we can't sell those planes ... We will sell those planes to whomever we want, if someone wants to buy them," Chavez said. "Those planes are ours; they don't belong to them anymore."

"What's more, we'll give them to whomever we wish," said Chavez, whose close ties to Iran have alarmed US President George W. Bush's government.

Iranian Embassy officials have said there are no formal plans to buy Venezuela's planes for now, and Defense Minister Orlando Maniglia played down the idea last week, saying Chavez had yet to decide what to do with the F-16s.

Muller raised his proposal of selling off the jets after the US announced it was blocking new arms sales to Venezuela, accusing Chavez of failing to cooperate in counterterrorism efforts.

"They attack us as terrorists," Chavez said during his weekly broadcast on Sunday. "It must be remembered that the first great terrorist on the planet is named President George Bush."

Chavez did not mention his plans for the F-16s on Sunday but said: "the United States is failing in its attempt to blockade us, to disarm us."

Venezuela's military is also turning to Russia to buy helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. Chavez said the first shipment of rifles is on its way and all of the guns will arrive by the end of the year.

US officials have suggested the idea of selling planes to Iran doesn't appear practical, and State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack last week calling it "overheated rhetoric" while reiterating that Venezuela would have to seek US approval for any sale.

Chavez, meanwhile, accused the US of preparing to attack Iran.

"We are with you, against the imperialist menace," Chavez told an Iranian diplomat during his program on Sunday, saying Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear energy despite US concerns about its nuclear program.

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