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Monday, June 12, 2006

Tanks, guns and bananas in Venezuelan war games

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - The chaos of armed conflict rattled Venezuela's run-down harbor area this week as troops and residents practiced resisting a potential invasion that President Hugo Chavez says the White House has planned.

Mock foreign aggressors in Engesa tanks trundled past wrecked houses near the Caribbean coast, only to be greeted by an ambush of "resistance" fighters unleashing a barrage of gunfire and explosions that echoed through the neighborhood.

Soldiers playing rebels armed with rifles and a rocket launcher dodged between wrecked houses as the invaders carpeted the muddy ground with blank shell casings. Tanks -- some flying skull and cross bones flags -- filled the air with booming cannon fire.

Ten minutes later the simulated assault was over.

"We're creating a doctrine so there is better preparation between the troops and the people in case of an invasion or whatever else," said Marine Lt. Jose Pinto, wearing a Chicago Bulls basketball team T-shirt and a grenade on his belt.

Chavez has ordered his armed forces and civilian reservists to prepare for a guerrilla war against U.S. forces which he says are seeking to control Venezuela's vast oil reserves.

This year he acquired new Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles and attack helicopters, and he is seeking Russian jets after U.S. officials banned sales of U.S. hardware as ties between Washington and Caracas frayed.

Since his 1998 election, Chavez has moved Venezuela away from its traditional political reliance on the United States. He has ended U.S. military cooperation and this year expelled a U.S. naval attache he accused of spying.

Washington portrays Chavez, an ally of the long-time U.S. foe Cuba, as a threat to regional stability and U.S. officials dismiss his invasion talk as bluster from an authoritarian leader trying to whip up supporters before elections in December.


Chavez, who survived a coup in 2002, has remained popular after spending billions of dollars in oil revenues on health and education programs for the poor as part of his self-styled socialist revolution.

In the barrios on La Guaira's hillsides overlooking the Caribbean sea, this week's preparations for an invasion at times seemed to come straight from a James Bond movie.

Civilian defense councils dug a tunnel inspired by Vietcong fighters to store food and arms. In one drill, troops showed reporters how they would store supplies in a cemetery and hid rifles among Virgin Mary statues during a religious festival.

In another scenario, a lookout on a motorbike practiced warning a defense committee about an impending attack by delivering a message hidden inside a bag of bananas. Others got a coded signal from a stall selling fried cheese pasties.

"We have to be prepared for war while we are in peace," said local defense committee member Freddy Amaya.

But in La Guaira, where thousands died in 1999 when huge mudslides swept neighborhoods into the Caribbean and where wrecked houses still stand as testimony to the disaster, not everyone was happy with the war games.

"I don't like any of this. My grandson is so scared," said Portuguese immigrant Matilda Aveu as tanks sat parked outside her home after the simulated ambush. "I've never seen anything like this in my 40 years here. It's scary."
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