Russian delegation in Caracas amid security tension with US

A Russian delegation arrived in Caracas Tuesday as Moscow moves to restore Soviet-era ties in South America heightening tensions with the United States already strained over the crisis in Georgia, reported dpa.

Two Russian, nuclear-capable bombers were carrying out exercises over the Caribbean from an air base in Venezuela on Tuesday, and the two countries plan joint naval games before the year is out.

The delegation, led by powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's deputy Igor Sechin, was on day two of a regional tour that began on the communist island of Cuba.

Russia's current moves to strengthen relations with Cuba, just 150 kilometers off the US coast, and with US foe Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez are a throwback to the regional power play in the Cold War-era.

The military exercises over US-patrolled waters appear to be a tit-for-tat measure by Moscow, angered by the presence of US warships in the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgia and US plans to build a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.

At a summit with the EU last year, then president Putin compared the US missile plans to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 - the closest the two powers ever came to full-scale war.

This was Sechin's second trip to Havana since August.

The first visit came after a report, later denied by the Russian Defence Ministry, that the Caribbean island may be used as a refuelling base for Russian war jets.

The goal of the Havana stop was officially to review damage from hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

Moscow, Cuba's greatest benefactor in Soviet times, was the first to send aid after the first storm hit the island last month.

The Tu-160 bombers, known as Blackjacks by their NATO codename, meanwhile carried out a patrol along the South American coast, Russia's air force said Tuesday.

"The aircraft took off from the Libertador airbase in Venezuela on Monday and flew along the South American coast toward Brazil," spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Drik was quoted by RIA Novosti news agency as saying.

He said the nuclear-capable planes carried only dummy missiles.

Defence analysts in Moscow said it was the first time strategic bombers have landed in Latin America since the Cold War, but Russia's Foreign Ministry has downplayed the exercises, saying they had no ambitions to reset military bases in the Western hemisphere.

As he looks to bolster opposition to Washington policy, Chavez has pushed for closer ties with Russia, including making several large weapons purchases in recent years.

The Venezuelan leader said when the Russian bombers landed, they would inform on the positions of the US 4th naval fleet in the Caribbean.

Putin said the West was overreacting to the military exercises in Venezuela.

"God forbid there should be any sort of conflict over the American continent, which is none other than the 'holiest of the holies,'" Putin said during a roundtable with Western experts in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi last week.

"Yet, they send armed ships to sit just 10 kilometres from where we are here (the Balck Sea, to deliver aid to Georgia)? Is that normal? Is it proportional?" the premier was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.

[Source: Trend News Agency, DPA, Ven, 16Sep08]

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