CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb 22 (Reuters) Venezuela has received the first Russian military transport helicopters purchased by President Hugo Chavez's government in a broad arms program that has caused concern in Washington.
State television showed a huge Russian cargo aircraft landing at a Maracay air force base to the west of Caracas yesterday carrying the first three MI-17V-5 helicopters officials say will be used for military, civilian or rescue operations.
''The first three MI-17 helicopters will be used by the army. In military terms, they are known as assault helicopters, but are also helicopters with multiple uses and will serve to help in national development,'' Army commander Raul Baduel said.
Defense Minister Adm. Orlando Maniglia said the helicopters could be used to help in social programs as well as to beef up troop transportation along the frontier if necessary.
Venezuela expects to take delivery of up to 35 Russian helicopters through three contracts with a total of ten arriving this year, he said. Last year Venezuela signed a 120 million dollar deal for the first ten aircraft.
Venezuela and the United States have sparred this year over Chavez's campaign to revitalize his country's armed forces after the Venezuelan leader blasted Washington for moving to block sales of Spanish and Brazilian military equipment to Caracas.
US officials brand the left-wing former army officer a destabilizing influence in the region and have tried to halt arms purchases containing US-made technology that requires Washington's approval for sales.
Chavez, a self-styled socialist revolutionary allied with Cuba, has become one of US President George W Bush's fiercest critics.
Slamming US foreign and free-trade policies, he has sought out closer commerce and energy ties with South American neighbors and countries such as Iran and China.
Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, still supplies around 15 percent of US energy imports though Chavez has warned recently the United States will get no more Venezuelan crude if Washington ''crosses the line'' as ties fray.
Venezuela's armed forces will soon receive the first delivery of 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic rifles to replace aging FAL rifles. Officials also hope to get Spanish military transport planes and patrol boats and Brazilian aircraft despite US opposition to the deals.
REUTERS PDS RAI0721