Venezuela says building drones with Iran’s help
CARACAS, (Reuters) – 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 U.S. anxiety over his socialist government’s role in the region. Referring to a Spanish media report that U.S. 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.” In a televised speech to military officers at Venezuela’s Defense Minis-try, Chavez said the aircraft only has 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.
During the lengthy broadcast, Chavez spoke by satellite link with a Venezuelan military officer at the state-owned arms maker Cavim.
The officer stood by a small drone labeled Harpy-001. He said it was 13 feet (4 meters) by 8 feet (2.5 meters), could fly as high as 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and for as long as 90 minutes. Venezuela has produced three of them, he said. “They are made in this country with military engineers who went to do a course in the sister Republic of Iran,” said the officer.
Chavez, whose stridently anti-Washington politics are highly popular in his OPEC nation, has expanded ties with Iran amid growing pressure by the United States and other nations on Tehran over its nuclear program. Iran denies Western charges that it is seeking to build nuclear weapons.
Spain’s ABC reported this week that U.S. prosecutors in New York were looking into Venezuela’s construction of drones and purchase of drones from Iran, citing sources familiar with the investigation.
In March, U.S. News and World Report’s military blog DOTMIL quoted General Douglas Fraser, the head of U.S. Southern Command, as saying Iran planned to build “fairly limited capacity” drones in Venezuela for the Venezuelan military that were similar to the U.S.-made unarmed ScanEagle class of drones.