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Colombia bases row fuels arms race

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BARILOCHE, Argentina, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- An ongoing row over U.S. military cooperation with Colombia to fight the drug cartels is indirectly fueling weapons buying among Latin American countries, analysts said.

Member countries of the Union of South American Nations gathered at this lakeside resort in response to an initiative by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to heal the rift between Colombia and its neighbors.

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The weekend talks failed to reach a consensus on ways of bringing together divergent viewpoints on the Colombian-U.S. deal, which extends American troop presence at Colombian bases.

Venezuela has called the military pact a threat to its security and embarked on an extensive military procurement program to put the country on a war footing. President Hugo Chavez has also found support in Bolivia and Ecuador for his rhetoric, including warnings of "winds of war" blowing from the north following the Colombian-U.S. deal.

As the row over the bases shows no sign of subsiding, other Latin American states have begun investing in new weapons procurement, military renovation and modernization or expansion.

Brazil has purchased at least 250 German Leopard tanks to beef up its border defenses and announced plans to build a nuclear-powered submarine with French assistance to defend its shores.

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Brazil has also signed contracts with Ecuador to supply it with military aircraft made in Brazil and has announced plans for regeneration of its arms manufacturing industries.

Ecuador has approached Israel with plans to acquire Israeli drones to deploy along its borders. Both Bolivia and Venezuela have gone arms shopping in Russia, but Bolivia's shopping budget of about $100 million is dwarfed by the planned arms spending by Caracas, expected to exceed $4 billion.

Industry analysts said the South American countries appeared to be redirecting more of their development funds to military buying amid uncertainties introduced by tensions over the Colombia-U.S. military deal.

In 2008 the 12 South American countries together channeled more than $50 billion into military expenditures, about 30 percent more than in 2007. Most prominent among countries where arms buying went up are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

This year's spending figures are not available yet, but recent diplomatic activities and foreign tours by government officials indicate arms buying this year will surpass the 2008 figure, analysts said.

Constraints of the recession and cash shortages in the smaller countries have not deterred government arms buyers because, where the United States demurs, China and Russia appear ready to step in, analysts said.

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Most of the larger arms deals in Ecuador and Venezuela have been secured by Russia, but discussions currently in progress are likely to lead to China emerging as a significant supplier of military equipment and weapons during 2009, analysts said.

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