pCARACAS – Two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers were in Venezuela on Sept. 10 for “training flights,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said, adding he would be piloting one of the aircraft./pp”I hope that stings, ‘pitiyanquis’,” he said, using a derogatory term for Venezuelan opponents who have perceived U.S. sympathies./pp”What’s more, I’m going to take the controls of one of these monsters,” boasted the president, a former paratrooper and left-wing politician who has avowed antagonism towards the United States./pp”It’s been a while since these planes have been around these parts, and Russia decided a couple of years ago to revive its strategic aviation program,” Chavez said during the inauguration of a medical center./ppThe moves came amid soaring tensions between Russia and the United States, including over the presence of U.S. naval vessels sent close to Russian shores to deliver aid to Georgia./ppChavez also said plans for joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises in the region in November were currently being worked out, and said his closeness to the Kremlin would result in a cooperation that would “strengthen the country.”/ppHis announcement confirmed an Interfax report in Russia citing the Russian defense ministry saying the bombers would be in Venezuela for training flights over “neutral waters.”/ppRussia said Sept. 8 it was dispatching a nuclear cruiser and other warships and planes to the Caribbean for the joint exercises with Venezuela – the first such maneuvers in the U.S. vicinity since the Cold War./ppA spokesman for the Russian navy said Sept. 8 that the November maneuvers would take place under an agreement sealed when the leaders of the two countries met in Moscow in July./ppAmong the Russian ships to take part in the exercises would be the heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great, a vessel with massive firepower whose cruise missiles can deliver nuclear or conventional warheads./ppForeign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said Sept. 8 that the exercises were “not in any way connected to the current situation in the Caucasus,” and were “not aimed at any third country.”/ppAnalysts said the Russian navy presence in Venezuela was more symbolic than military, though it did nothing assuage fears that Cold War-type tensions were building./ppThomas Gomart of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations noted that, up to now, Russia had contented itself with selling arms, notably fighter-bombers, to Caracas./ppBut the announcement of the Caribbean maneuvers seemed to be both an overt challenge to U.S. power and a gesture of support to Chavez’s radical policies, he said./ppThe Tupolev Tu-160 bombers were tracked by NATO jets on their flight to Venezuela, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing the defense ministry./ppThe planes – huge supersonic combat aircraft similar to the U.S. B1 bombers, capable of flying long missions with a heavy payload – are capable of carrying nuclear or conventional bombs and/or cruise and guided missiles./ppAccording to Globalsecurity.org, there are 14 of the bombers in the Russian air force, after a 2003 crash destroyed one of them./p

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