Venezuela is building unmanned drone aircraft as part of military cooperation with Iran and other allies, President Hugo Chavez said, in a move likely to heighten US anxiety over his socialist government's role in the region, Reuters reported.
Referring to a Spanish media report that US prosecutors are investigating drone production in Venezuela, Chavez said late on Wednesday: "Of course we're doing it, and we have the right to. We are a free and independent country."
Chavez added that the aircraft has only a camera and was exclusively for defensive purposes. "We don't have any plans to harm anyone," he said.
"We are doing this with the help of different countries including China, Russia, Iran, and other allied countries," he added, apparently referring both to drone construction and to other projects including a munitions and weapons factory, Reuters said.
In March, US News and World Report's military blog DOTMIL quoted General Douglas Fraser, the head of US Southern Command, as saying Iran planned to build "fairly limited capacity" drones in Venezuela for the Venezuelan military that were similar to the US-made unarmed ScanEagle class of drones.
"It's not up into the Predator class," DOTMIL quoted Fraser as telling reporters in Washington, referring to the bigger drones that can be armed with air-to-ground Hellfire missiles, Reuters reported.
In December, Iran said it shot down a US military drone that had violated its airspace and demanded an apology from Washington. Iranian officials said later they were close to cracking the Lockheed Martin Corp aircraft's technology.
Armed drones have become a key weapon in the US fight against Taliban and other militants in Pakistan, sparking outrage by Pakistan's government. US officials said last week a drone strike in Pakistan killed al Qaeda's second-in-command.
Chavez said Venezuela would soon receive another visit from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came to Caracas earlier this year in January.
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