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Chavez drills military, civilians to repel invasion

Written by: Staff

MACARAO, Venezuela, March 5 (Reuters) At a rural military base on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuelan officers have started classes in unconventional warfare to repel an invasion left-wing President Hugo Chavez warns Washington may attempt.

Snipers draped in foliage and civilian reservists armed with knives, catapults and handguns crawled out of a hidden tunnel in a demonstration as instructors lectured on resistance tactics.

Captains, lieutenants and majors strained behind a cordon to make out another soldier camouflaged inside tree perch as he fired a bow and peppered a uniformed dummy target with arrows.

''If no one comes, then that's fine, we can continue as the free and sovereign country we are, but we cannot permit that any foreign force tries to invade,'' instructor Lt. Col. Antonio Benavides said as gunfire cracked from a firing range during the weekend training.

''All Venezuelans, the state and civil society, have a joint responsibility to defend the nation,'' he said.

Locked in a fierce confrontation with the U.S. government, Chavez is building up civilian reservists and has ordered the armed forces to adopt a doctrine emphasizing ''asymmetric war'' or resistance war against a more powerful foreign force.

An initial batch of 500,000 civilian reservists and territorial guard volunteers will start four-month basic training at weekends, said retired Col. Hector Herrera, a reservist advisor.

Washington dismisses Chavez's charges that it plans to oust him to control the world's No. 5 oil exporter and brushes off his invasion talk as sabre-rattling to stir up nationalism and mobilize supporters before elections in December.

But tensions are high as U.S. officials portray Chavez, a self-styled socialist revolutionary allied with Cuba, as a negative influence in Latin America. Washington has opposed Venezuela's recent arms purchases and the reservist drive.

The United States and Venezuela last month expelled diplomats after Chavez accused a U.S. naval attache of spying and the former soldier has stepped up threats to cut off U.S. oil shipments.

RESERVISTS GETTING READY At the special forces military base in Macarao National Park, officers listened to a lecture on camouflage, surprise attacks and utilizing reservists to strike at invading troops as part of their regular training.

Instructors drew comparisons to Vietcong guerrilla attacks on U.S troops, including the use of secret tunnels, poisons and home-made weapons.

Venezuelan officers have also been sent to Havana to learn civilian-military cooperation from the Cubans, said National Guard Gen. Juan Alberto Hernandez.

An ex paratrooper first elected in 1998, Chavez has steadily cut U.S. military ties as he strengthens relations with Russia, Iran and Cuba. Last year he suspended U.S. anti-drug cooperation, having already ended most U.S. training programs.

In April he drilled more than 20,000 civilian reservists he said were key to defending his ''Bolivarian'' revolution, named after South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar, and to helping with his social programs for the poor.

''We will count on you for the battles to come to guarantee the Bolivarian revolution and the nation's sovereignty,'' Chavez said wearing the red beret of his old regiment.

Critics worry about the reservists may be used to crackdown on foes of a president they say has become more authoritarian in a drive to copy Cuban communism.

After training, reservists, who get a stipend of around for each training session, could be armed with old FAL rifles currently used by the armed forces after regular troops get 100,000 new Russian Kalashnikov rifles, officials said.

''They will guarantee resistance against an invading force in their areas. They'll be trained in weapons and other home-made artifacts,'' said instructor Benavides. ''They can be confused with the local populace and that is part of asymmetric war.'' Reuters CH DB2128

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