March 13, 2008 / 11:12 PM / 10 years ago

US commander questions Venezuelan military growth

WASHINGTON, March 13 (Reuters) - The top U.S. commander for Latin America and the Caribbean on Thursday questioned the need for Venezuela’s military build-up following a peaceful resolution to this month’s crisis in South America.

Adm. Jim Stavridis, head of U.S. Southern Command, said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’ purchase of aircraft, helicopters, rifles and other materiel in recent years is puzzling in a region capable of avoiding armed conflict.

“I personally have difficulty understanding why that many weapons would be needed by the Venezuelan state,” he said at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

Venezuela has purchased 24 Sukhoi fighter jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles from Russia in 2006 and has talked about buying submarines, all of which Chavez says is needed to protect the country from “imperialist” attack.

Stavridis said the recent Andean crisis, triggered by Colombia’s March 1 raid against leftist FARC guerrillas in Ecuador, proved that leaders in the region can settle their differences peacefully.

Venezuela and Ecuador responded to the raid by sending troops to their borders with U.S.-backed Colombia. Bogota later apologized and promised not to take such action again, if its neighbors cooperated against the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

“I am concerned about (Venezuela’s military build-up). It seems like a high level of weapons purchases,” the admiral testified.

“This is a region that’s not prone to going to war but has the capacity to solve peacefully (its) disputes,” he said.

Stavridis told lawmakers that Colombia has made “enormous progress” against the FARC, saying the number of the group’s guerrillas has fallen to “somewhere around 8,000 or 9,000” from an estimated 17,500 in 2002.

“Colombia is on the brink of winning its peace and making its successful gains against terrorism and social disorder irreversible,” he said in written testimony submitted separately to the committee.

U.S. officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who traveled in the region on Thursday, have defended Colombia’s military action against the FARC, which Bogota says has been aided by the leftist governments of Ecuador and Venezuela.

Washington regards FARC as a terrorist organization and has expressed concern about its possible with Venezuela, a major exporter of oil to the United States.

Stavridis also described Venezuelan ally Cuba as a threat to democracy in the region, but said he does not believe the communist nation poses a military threat to the United States. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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