Belarus's pariah president, Venezuela's Chavez hold talks


MINSK - Venezuela's firebrand leader Hugo Chavez met Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko here Wednesday in a bid by the two fierce U.S. critics to more closely coordinate energy and trade ties.

The controversial leaders were expected to discuss military and energy cooperation that has seen Belarus develop oil fields in the hydrocarbon-rich Latin American state while offering to share its Soviet-era military know-how.

Both leaders are treated as pariahs in Washington, which has branded Lukashenko "Europe's last dictator." But at the opening of talks on Wednesday, they were all smiles.

"I thank you from all my heart that despite your busy schedule . . . you found the time to visit your friends," Lukashenko told Chavez in remarks broadcast on Belarusian state television.

Chavez said it would have been "unthinkable" not to visit Minsk during his four-country European tour, which took in Russia on Tuesday and is due to continue to Portugal and Spain.

Chavez flew into Minsk after a two-day trip to Moscow, where he agreed to buy elements of a missile defence system, part of a re-arming he described as a response to the U.S. threat to Venezuela.

Belarus has also agreed to take part in building the air defence system.

On arrival at Minsk airport on Wednesday, Chavez said Belarusian investment in Venezuelan oil fields would be at the top of talks focused on economic cooperation.

"We hope for a twofold increase in trade-economic ties," Chavez said.

Chavez later said the talks with Lukashenko would focus on Belarusian oil projects in Venezuela and the construction of trucks and tractors, the Interfax news agency reported.

Another likely topic is a $500-million credit line that Venezuela is providing Belarus in several tranches.

The volume of trade between the two countries over the first five months of 2008 was more than double the amount from the same period in 2007, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Lukashenko and Chavez have met five times in the past two years, RIA Novosti said.

After the talks, Chavez was due to attend the opening of a square named after 19th-century Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, a Lukashenko spokesman said.