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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Venezuela's Chavez to visit North Korea, Iran

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced on Sunday that he will visit Iran and North Korea, two nations at odds with Washington over nuclear development, at a time when Chavez is seeking to distance Venezuela from the United States.

Chavez, who has promised a socialist revolution to end poverty in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, has drawn fire from the State Department for building alliances with U.S. foes like Cuba and Iran.

"We will soon be in North Korea, we will soon be in Tehran, deepening our ... strategic alliances," Chavez said during his weekly Sunday broadcast.

He said the tour will also include stops in China and Russia, where Venezuela will sign military cooperation agreements with the Russian government, following U.S. moves to block Chavez's arms purchases from other countries.

He did not provide dates for the trip, which he said will include a stop in "North Vietnam."

The State Department last month added Venezuela to a list of nations not cooperating in the fight on terrorism and has repeatedly accused Chavez of supporting leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia, though there has been no clear evidence to support this claim.

The U.S. government in January blocked sales of Spanish military planes and ships to Venezuela by refusing Spain an export license for the U.S. technology used in the vessels.

Chavez has aggressively supported Iran's efforts to develop nuclear technology, and has helped undermine the U.S. embargo of Cuba by increasing trade and providing oil on favorable terms.

He drew State Department criticism in 2000 by visiting former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as part of a tour to strengthen the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Last month, he took a Venezuelan delegation to England, Italy, Austria, Libya, and Algeria.

The leftist former paratrooper, who has hurled insults like "donkey" and "assassin" at President Bush, is up for re-election in December.

He is widely expected to win after building up popular support through multibillion-dollar social investment projects financed by oil revenues.
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