Report: Russian bombers given access to Venezuelan island

Miami HeraldMarch 15, 2009 

CARACAS — The Russian military has reached a contingency agreement to land long-range supersonic bomber aircraft in Venezuela, according to reports from Moscow on Saturday, which analysts cast more as a nuisance than reason for alarm.

U.S. Defense and diplomatic officials said they were aware of the report but downplayed its significance.

''Our analysts weren't caught unaware and don't believe this is anything alarming,'' said Army Col. Bill Costello, spokesman for the Pentagon's Southern Command.

There was no immediate reaction from the Venezuelan government.

InterFax quoted a Russian Air Force chief, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, as saying that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had offered an island off the country's Caribbean coast as a support base for strategic Russian bombers -- an apparent reference to La Orchila, home to Antonio Diaz Naval Air Station, off the north-central coast.

La Orchila is Venezuela's version of Camp David, a presidential retreat used by Chavez for summits and at-times clandestine meetings. The president also was detained there, briefly, during his 2002 ouster.

La Orchila has been the focus of Russian interest for some time.

Venezuelan media reported in November that, while President Dmitry Medvedev toured Latin America, Russian military inspected the island's airstrip.

The two nations' navies were engaging in joint exercises at the time, a reflection of a Russian military push into the region in recent years -- mainly to sell military hardware. But U.S. officials said at the time that they were more concerned about Iran's activities in the region than Russia's.

Analysts also noted the timing of Saturday's report: the United States and Russia are vying for influence in Latin America, even as the Obama administration has said it is seeking to hit the ''reset button'' on relations with the Kremlin.

InterFax quoted the Russian general as earlier saying that Cuba, too, has air bases with four or five runways long enough for the huge bombers that could host the long-range planes.

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