Venezuela to arm against 'US invasion'

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez extended his verbal war with Washington, likening US President George Bush to Hitler while saying he was considering buying enough rifles to arm one million Venezuelans ready to repel a possible US invasion.

Speaking at a mass rally yesterday commemorating a failed 1992 coup he led as a lieutenant colonel, Chavez warned that Washington was considering invading Venezuela and the country needed more weapons to defend itself.

“We still need a higher number of rifles,” he said. ”The 100,000 Russian rifles are not enough. Venezuela needs to have one million well-equipped and well-armed men and women.”

Relations between Washington and Caracas have been tense in recent months in part due to US criticism of Venezuela’s purchases of military equipment, including 100,000 Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Chavez told the crowd of cheering supporters he had started making contacts with other countries that would be able to supply the additional rifles.

During Saturday’s marathon speech, the Venezuelan leader also responded to comments made on Thursday by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who compared Chavez to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and warned about populist leadership in Bolivia and Cuba, both close allies of Venezuela.

“The imperialist, mass murdering, fascist attitude of the president of the US doesn’t have limits,” Chavez said. “I think Hitler could be a nursery baby next to George W. Bush.”

Earlier yesterday, tens of thousands of Chavez supporters wearing replicas of the president’s trademark beret marched through the Venezuelan capital shouting “Yankee Imperialism, No! Revolution, Yes!”

“Chavistas,” as the president’s backers are known, accused the US of conspiring to overthrow Chavez, saying US spies have attempted to stir discontent within the military in hopes of ousting him.

Chavez has repeatedly accused the US of plotting to overthrow him, or even invade Venezuela. Washington has strongly denied any such plans.

“The gringos are trying to infiltrate Venezuela’s armed forces, but Chavez is here to stay,” said Vladimir Enriquez, a 44-year-old mechanic.

Enriquez, and others who joined the sea of government supporters, criticised Washington for ordering a Venezuelan diplomat to leave the country in what the State Department said Friday was retaliation for the expulsion of a US naval officer from Caracas a day earlier.

Venezuela expelled US naval attache John Correa for allegedly passing secret information from Venezuelan military officers to the Pentagon.

On the other side of Caracas, thousands of opposition sympathisers marched to protest what they perceive as increasing authoritarianism under Chavez and strongly condemned the bloody coup attempt he led as a lieutenant colonel 14 years ago.

More than 80 civilians and 17 soldiers were killed on February 4, 1992, before troops loyal to then-President Carlos Andres Perez quelled the short-lived putsch. Chavez has celebrated the rebellion’s anniversary every year since he took office in 1999.

“Venezuela’s democracy is threatened” by Chavez, said 60-year-old retiree Luis Cuevas, who said the president was ”looking for problems with the US” as a means of turning attention away from the country’s domestic problems.

Opponents fear that Chavez is steering this oil-rich South American nation toward Cuba-style communism, while supporters applaud his far-reaching social programs funded by a flood of petrodollars.

Chavez met with Fidel Castro in Cuba on Friday.

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