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Venezuela, Spain set military accord

A $2b pact involves boats and planes; US repeats concern

CARACAS -- Spain agreed yesterday to sell 12 military planes and eight patrol boats to Venezuela in a $2 billion agreement that the United States has threatened to try to block.

The State Department repeated reservations about the sale because the planes and boats carry US parts and technology, but the Spanish defense minister, José Bono, joined the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez in saying the sale should not concern Washington.

''Is there some rule that prohibits this sale? . . . There is no international embargo," Bono said at the signing ceremony.

Spain is selling 10 C-295 transport planes and two CN-235 patrol planes, as well as four ocean patrol boats and four coast patrol vessels.

It was the largest military accord ever for Spain.

Bono said that neither the boats nor the transport planes were armed, and that the patrol planes were equipped only for self-defense.

''This is not a warplane," he said.

Chavez also criticized Washington for trying to hold up the sale.

''Venezuela was a colony of the US empire for a long time. Today we're free, and the world should know it," Chavez said, repeating his frequent criticism that in past decades the United States has held sway over the oil-producing country.

''We in Venezuela don't have to be giving any explanation, much less under imperialist pressure," Chávez said

Last week, the US ambassador to Spain, Eduardo Aguirre, said Washington could refuse to allow US technology to be transferred to Venezuela, and a State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack repeated the US concerns about the sale yesterday.

''We are currently looking at technology licensing issues," he said. ''There hasn't been any final conclusion on that question yet."

Vice Admiral Armando Laguna of the Venezuelan Navy said that the boats and planes would be delivered within seven years, and that any US-made parts could be replaced easily with others made in European countries.

''We'll change the equipment if their export isn't approved or if they don't grant the export license," Laguna said, adding that the US components in the military planes and vessels ''aren't vital, really."

Chávez has said that the vessels and planes will be used to combat the drug trade in Venezuela, which borders Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer.

The United States alleges that Chávez, an ally of Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, supports radical political movements in Latin America and is ''destabilizing" the region. Chávez has denied the charges.

Chávez, in turn, accuses the United States of planning to invade his country.

The United States also has expressed concerns about Venezuela's purchase of 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles from Russia.

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