Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday announced a plan to buy Russian tanks in response to a pending deal on boosting U.S. military presence in neighboring Colombia, as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe continued his regional tour to seek support for the deal.
"We are going to buy several battalions of Russian tanks," as the pending deal was a "hostile act" and "true threat" to Venezuela, Chavez told reporters.
He did not say how many tanks he plans to buy, but noted that each battalion typically has about 40.
He also failed to mention how much Venezuela intends to spend on these tanks.
Under the pending Colombian-U.S. deal, Washington could gain access to at least seven Colombian military bases by the year 2019, and in return, Washington would offer Bogota some 5 billion U.S. dollars in aid.
"These bases could be the start of a war in South America," Chavez warned.
Though Washington and Bogota have said the plan was designed to strengthen Colombia's anti-drug and anti-rebel efforts, many South American countries have voiced their concern.
Bolivian President Evo Morales on Wednesday said the increase of U.S. military presence in the region was not for battling Colombian rebels or drug traffickers.
"It is for the region... Our duty is to reject it," Morales told a press conference at the Quemado Palace.
"The installation of U.S. bases in Latin America represents a blatant aggression to regional sovereignty and dignity," he said.
Brazil, which has a strong say in regional affairs, also refuses to support the U.S.-Colombian plan.
President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva last week said he did not like the idea, while his foreign affairs advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia said "foreign bases in the region look like relics of the Cold War."
Aurelio said Washington's relations with some South American countries are very tense, and that such a deal would not help ease the tension.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in an article published on Cuban media, supported Chavez's purchase plan, saying the threat that Washington has imposed "is directed at all the countries" in South America.
URIBE'S EFFORTS TO HEAD OFF OPPOSITION
Colombia's Uribe, who is halfway through a regional tour that was designed to win more support for the pending deal, has managed to produce some, if not big, success.
In Chile, though he was greeted by protests outside the La Mondeda Palace, he succeeded in heading off Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's opposition.
Bachelet, who last week said the Colombian decision to offer U.S. military access made all the region uneasy, changed her tone after meeting with Uribe by calling the U.S. base deal an internal affair of Colombia.
Chilean Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez told reporters: "The decisions that every country takes are sovereign and must be respected."
Uribe won solid support from his Peruvian counterpart Alan Garcia, who said Colombia has provided a democratic model for the whole region to follow.
Uribe was also scheduled to visit Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina.
A summit of the Union of South American Nations slated for next Monday is expected to discuss the issue, and Morales said he would call on his counterparts in the region to reject the U.S.-Colombian pact.