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Russia Building Arms Plants In Venezuela

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) meets with his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, in Barvikha, outside Moscow, in September.
CARACAS (Reuters) -- Russia is building arms plants in Venezuela to produce AK-103 automatic rifles and cartridges and is finalizing contracts to send 53 military helicopters to the Andean nation, Moscow's envoy to Venezuela said.

Ambassador Vladmir Zaemskiy told a news conference that Russian engineers and Venezuelan construction firms were building the rifle and cartridge plants which, when operational, would employ more than 1,500 workers.

He gave no completion date for the plants under construction in the central state of Aragua.

Details about Moscow's military shipments and projects have been scarce since socialist President Hugo Chavez's government began signing military agreements with Russia back in 2001.

In recent years, Venezuela has bought over $4 billion in weapons from Russia, including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets. Critics say Caracas is fueling an arms race in Latin America. Chavez says he is modernizing the military for defensive purposes.

When Chavez he returned from his latest trip to Russia in September, he said Russia had agreed to lend Venezuela $2.2 billion to purchase 92 tanks and an S-300 missile system that can shoot down fighter jets and cruise missiles.

Two years ago, Russia agreed to sell the same S-300 system to Iran but has dragged its feet over delivering the weapons amid U.S. and Israeli concerns they will be used to defend Iran's nuclear installations.

Zaemskiy declined to provide details on delivery dates for the tanks and missile system. He could not say if Moscow already disbursed part of the $2.2 billion loan.

But he added that "big contracts" were being finalized to deliver 53 "Mil" helicopters that can be used by the Venezuelan armed forces and for humanitarian missions.

Between 2006 and 2008, Moscow delivered a total of about 59 military helicopters to Venezuela, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Russia was also providing "a complete range" of military spare parts to Venezuela, Zaemskiy said. It is also transferring technology and building technical maintenance centers.

"As a result of this cooperation, Venezuela's defense capacity has increased considerably, as well as its level of technological independence," the ambassador said.