Venezuela, Belarus presidents tighten oil ties

Oil producers Venezuela and Belarus tightened their energy and trade ties as President Hugo Chavez met Wednesday with his Belarussian counterpart, a fellow fierce critic of the United States.

The leaders committed "to strengthening cooperation in the area of energy", according to a statement by the office of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

A military and energy cooperation deal between the two has already seen Belarus develop oil fields in the oil-rich Latin American state while offering to share its Soviet-era military know-how.

Belarussian and Venezuelan state oil companies signed an agreement Wednesday to coincide with Chavez's visit, the Belarus presidency said.

Belarusneft and its Venezuelan counterpart, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) agreed to terms giving Belarus the right to exploit three additional oil fields in Venezuela, as well as the creation of a joint venture to double production capacity.

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 Belarussian 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.

The Venezuelan leader 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 a US 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 the talks with Lukashenko would also focus on boosting overall trade.

"We hope for a twofold increase in economic exhanges," Chavez said.

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.

Another topic likely on the agenda was a 500 million dollar (320 million euro) credit line that Venezuela is providing Belarus.

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.