Venezuela eyes Belarus weapons systems

MINSK, Belarus, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is in talks with Belarus on developing military cooperation leading to joint projects and Belarus's help with modernizing Venezuela's anti-aircraft defense systems.

The official Venezuelan ABN news agency said Chavez will also visit Belarusian manufacturers of heavy vehicles deployed in the exploration and production sectors of Venezuela's oil industry.

Chavez began building bridges to Belarus in 2006 after the two sides signed agreements identifying areas of mutual interest. Belarus has been looking to diversify its fuel supplies and reduce near total dependence on Russia. It is also anxious to increase its country-to-country exports of weapons to add to inventories sold on the "open market" by official or unofficial groups.

U.S. intelligence reports have cited evidence that some Belarusian arms deliveries may have been destined for groups blacklisted for suspect activities.

As a landlocked country sharing borders with Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, Belarus depends on manufacturing as its chief mainstay after agriculture.

Belarus faced an industrial collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union because it depended on technology and heavy industry manufacturing for the bulk of its revenue. In subsequent years, according to security sources, hundreds of millions of dollars of Belarusian weapons and equipment changed hands in suspect deals.

A comprehensive economic and military cooperation agreement between Belarus and Venezuela will give the Belarusian economy a much-needed inroad into the global defense industry.

Venezuela has embarked on a major military renewal program and is interested in purchasing an anti-aircraft defense system suitable to its needs. The Ministry of Defense is also looking to either upgrade or replace a Belgian-made portable missile system already deployed in the Venezuelan armed forces.

However, according to industry sources, some of the equipment available in Belarus is similar to items on the Russian inventory, which may see the two allies competing for the Venezuelan market.

The Venezuela-Belarus accord is wide-ranging and provides for "production, updating, servicing, repair, purchase and sale of supplies and techniques for aviation, anti-aircraft equipment and land troops."

The two countries have also discussed joint design and manufacture of new military and technological equipment and for transfer of technology.

Industry sources said Belarus appeared interested in offering technology transfer, which could entail dispatch of its experts to Venezuela over a long term, as that prospect offered new openings for business opportunities in South America's defense industry market.

Most South American countries have announced military modernization programs, some involving tens of billions of dollars. Brazil, Chile and Venezuela currently lead the list of countries engaged in extensive weapons acquisition programs.



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