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Venezuelan weekend warriors train for US invasion

Written by: Staff

CHARALLAVE, Venezuela, Apr 4 (Reuters) Catching his breath after weaving through burning tires, crossing trenches and crawling under barbed wire, Diego Rivero says he is ready to repel any US military invasion of Venezuela.

Rivero, a chauffeur, joined students, teachers and housewives last weekend to begin training in the Territorial Guard, a civilian reserve created by President Hugo Chavez to resist the assault he believes Washington is planning.

''The gringos don't have the guts, but if they do invade then we have to be ready,'' said Rivero, mud-spattered and breathless under the sweltering sun, after making it through the bayonet assault course at Fort Guaicaipuro near Caracas.

The United States has dismissed Chavez's invasion talk as a ridiculous invention designed to stir up his supporters, many of whom are poor.

But with Chavez accusing the United States of trying to oust him and US officials saying the self-styled socialist revolutionary threatens regional stability, US-Venezuelan relations are in tatters.

Chavez on Sunday said he would have a nasty welcome waiting for US forces -- arrows covered with Indian poison.

At Fort Guaicaipuro, army officers barking orders tried to drum some military discipline into their army of civilians, but light-hearted fun often prevailed as the volunteers got to grips with outdated rifles.

With acrid smoke billowing over the course, crowds laughed and cheered ''Give it to him'' as their fellow volunteers clad in jeans, T-shirts and odd bits of army gear tumbled into a muddy trench and over obstacles to attack dummy targets.

National Guard Lt Col Rafael Angel Faria said 3,000 volunteers drawn from local communities would train at the fort for 20 weekends. He said 42 reservist battalions were in similar training nationwide.

FORCE COULD CRUSH DISSENT Critics say the new civilian force is more likely geared to helping mobilize Chavez supporters as he faces elections in December than to repel an invasion. Others fear the recruits could used against domestic opposition.

Faria said volunteers would be drilled to handle rifles and in infiltration and resistance techniques. They would also receive instruction in first aid and other skills they could use in their communities and in natural disasters.

''The idea is that they are leaders in their communities,'' he said. ''If there is an invasion they are going to resist in their communities, blocking roads, cutting power lines. We are teaching them to defend themselves.'' Chavez, who presides over the world's fifth largest oil exporter, has angered Washington by allying himself with Cuba and Iran. He has also embarked on a military buildup, seeking to buy new helicopters, warships, aircraft and rifles from Russia, Spain and Brazil.

US officials, who have suggested Chavez may be backing Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia, also worry about a recent deal to buy 100,000 Russian rifles.

Cheering and applauding each other at the end of the assault course, most of volunteers at Fort Guaicaipuro were clearly enjoying the novelty of the day.

''Firstly, we're preparing so we can help out with social programs,'' said nurse Marisol Fuentes. ''And then if anything else happens then we'll be ready.'' Reuters SHR AD VP0420

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