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Venezuela Welcomes Russian Bombers

Two Russian strategic bombers landed in Venezuela on Wednesday as part of military maneuvers, President Hugo Chavez said, welcoming the unprecedented deployment at a time of increasing tensions between Moscow and the U.S.

The Venezuelan leader said the two Russian Tu-160 bombers will conduct maneuvers and that he hopes to "fly one of those things" himself.

Russian military analysts said it was the first time Russian strategic bombers have landed in the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. The surprise foray into Venezuela was certain to anger Washington and add to the strain in U.S.-Russian relations over Russia's war in Georgia.

Chavez called the deployment part of a move toward a "pluri-polar world" - a reference to moving away from U.S. dominance. "The Yankee hegemony is finished," Chavez said in a televised speech.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the bombers flew to Venezuela on a training mission and would conduct training flights over neutral waters in the next few days before returning to Russia, according to a statement carried by Russian news wires.

Ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky refused to say how long the deployment would last or say whether the planes were carrying any weapons. Military officers in the past have said Russian strategic bombers do not carry live weapons on patrol flights.

NATO fighters escorted the two Russian bombers on their 13-hour trip to Venezuela over the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, the Defense Ministry said.

The Russian deployment appeared to be a tit-for-tat response to the U.S. move to send warships to deliver aid to U.S.-allied Georgia after its war last month with Russia.

"This is a redux of Cold War games, and a dangerous thing to do," said Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "It will only strengthen the hand of those in the United States who want to punish Russia for its action in Georgia."

Earlier this week, Russia said it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes to Venezuela in November for a joint military exercise in the Caribbean.

Alexander Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Assessment, said the deployment would lead to further deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations.

"It's a demonstration of Russia's ability to do things nasty: You send warships to the Black Sea and we send bombers next to your door," Konovalov said. "It will have a negative impact on global stability."

The commander of Russia's strategic missile forces also repeated warnings Wednesday that Russian ballistic rockets could be aimed at U.S. missile defenses in Europe if the system is ever built, news agencies reported.

Meanwhile, NATO said Wednesday it had ended a routine exercise by four naval ships in the Black Sea. Russia had denounced the exercise as part of a Western military buildup sparked by the Georgia conflict.

The alliance said the four ships - U.S. frigate USS Taylor and three similar vessels from Spain, Germany and Poland - were moving back to the Mediterranean Sea after the 18-day mission.

Chavez has strongly backed Russia's stance in Georgia. He denied that Russia's plan for a deployment later this year is related, saying the Russian navy's visit has been planned for more than a year.

Venezuela remains a leading oil supplier to the United States, but as tensions with Washington have grown, Chavez's government has spent billions of dollars on Russian weapons including helicopters, Kalashnikov rifles and Sukhoi fighter jets.

Chavez also said Venezuela is looking to buy Russian submarines and is working with Russia to set up an air-defense system including long-range radar and "rockets ready to defend the country."

The socialist leader, who survived a failed 2002 coup he blames on Washington, repeated his accusations of U.S.-backed attempts to kill him or topple him, saying U.S. forces are "looking for active soldiers, looking for pilots to bomb Miraflores," the presidential palace.

The U.S. Embassy denied it.

"The United States continuously strives for positive and productive relations with Venezuela," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Robin Holzhauer said. "Unfortunately, the Venezuelan government often responds to these open overtures with name-calling and storytelling. These Venezuelan actions are unfortunate for both of our countries."

Chavez has called the U.S. Navy's newly re-established Fourth Fleet a threat. On Wednesday, he said he's sure "nuclear submarines pass under our noses" off Venezuela's coast. He said Venezuela is aiming to strengthen its "defensive capability with our strategic allies, and Russia is one of them."

Later, Chavez called the U.S. the "empire" as he addressed troops at the christening of a newly built coast guard patrol ship. "Every day, relations between Venezuela and Russia will continue to deepen."

He dismissed comparisons to the Cold War, but mentioned Cuba while saying he had been reviewing flight theory in a simulator in hopes of flying one of the Russian planes.

Addressing his close friend Fidel Castro, Chavez said: "I'm going to fly a Tu-160. Fidel, I'm going to fly low past you there."

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