Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Venezuela to Replace U.S. F-16 Fighters With Russian Su-35s

Venezuela is considering replacing its contingent of U.S.-built F-16 multi-role fighters with Russian Su-35s, a high-ranking Venezuelan general was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.

"We are considering procurement of Russian Su-35 fighter aircraft to replace the F-16s, after the United States banned weapons exports to Venezuela," Venezuelan General Staff official General Alberto Muller Rojas said. "At the moment the Su-35 is world’s best multi-role fighter."

The United States announced a ban on arms sales to Venezuela May 15. The U.S. State Department accuses the South American country of having an intelligence-sharing relationship with Iran and Cuba, both of which the U.S. says are state sponsors of terrorism.

The sanctions against Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier, come after years of antagonism between the leftist Venezuelan president and the White House, on issues ranging from trade to oil prices, which have dragged ties to their worst state in decades, website reports.

President Hugo Chavez has accused the United States of breaching an agreement to supply parts for Venezuela's F-16s.

Rojas, a military advisor close to Chavez, said the possibility of procurement of Russian fighter Su-35 had previously been discussed with Moscow, but that the White House’s decision to stop supplying spare parts for U.S. aircraft had given fresh impetus to the talks.

General Alberto Muller Rojas, said earlier he had recommended to the defense ministry that Venezuela consider selling its F-16s after the U.S. announced a ban on arms sales to the country. Muller said he thought it worthwhile to consider "the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes."

But the Defense Minister's spokesperson said that this was Muller’s personal opinion only and that he "is not a spokesman of the armed forces," Chicago Tribune daily newspaper reports.

The Iranian Embassy in Caracas said no deal involving warplanes had been proposed.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said Monday that the United States would not allow Venezuela to sell the planes to Iran.

Under U.S. arms-sales contracts, "you can't transfer these defense articles, in this case, F-16s, to a third country," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "And I would expect that even if such a request were made that [permission] would not be forthcoming from the U.S. Government."

The U.S. and Venezuela signed a contract on the F-16s in 1982, and Venezuela does not have the right to re-sell its F-16s under the terms of that contract. However, Rojas said the U.S. had broken the agreement unilaterally, so Venezuela considered itself free not to comply with its obligations.