Russian strategic bombers to leave Venezuela on Sept 15: Spokesman

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Moscow, Sep 12 (UNI) Russian Air Force spokesman Lt Col Vladimir Drik said two Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers that landed in Venezuela last Wednesday will return to Russia on September 15.

''Their return has been scheduled for September 15,'' Col Drik said, adding but bombers could stay on if Venezuela gave its approval.

The bombers landed at Venezuela's Libertador airfield and during their 13-hour flight from their home base in central Russia were accompanied by NATO fighters.

However, Maj Gen Pavel Androsov, commander of the Air Force strategic aviation, told RIA Novosti news agency that the return of planes ''could take place later than September 15.'' ''It all depends on Venezuela's hospitality,'' Gen Androsov said.

During their stay in Venezuela, the bombers are scheduled to conduct a number of patrol flights over neutral waters in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Russian Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the landing of strategic bombers in Venezuela did not mean that Russia had established a military base in the South American country.

''Russia does not have military bases in Latin America,'' the official spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Andrei Nesterenko said.

''The landing at the Venezuelan airbase was carried out in line with prior agreements between Russia and Venezuela,'' he added.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on September 1 that ''if Russian long-range bombers should need to land in Venezuela we would not object to that.'' Gen Androsov also said the Russian planes could be used to escort the Venezuelan leader.

''We are not a commercial organisation, but if they ask us and we receive proper permission, then we will give him a safe flight over the Caribbean,'' he said.

Earlier this week, Russia confirmed that it would send a Navy squadron and long-range patrol planes for joint exercises with Venezuela in November.

Mr Chavez has developed close relations with Moscow, including the purchase of Russian arms and cooperation on oil.

He has backed Russia's military operations in Georgia, and said that he was interested in buying Russian submarines.

UNI XC RJ PM1802

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