Chavez defends Venezuela's new military chief

January 17, 2012 - 10:35 PM
CORRECTION Venezuela Chavez Military

** CORRECTS POSITIONS ** Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, second from left, incoming Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, left, and outgoing Defense Minister Gen. Carlos Mata Figueroa, third from left, speak during Rangel Silva's swearing-in ceremony at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez defended his new military chief on Tuesday, saying renewed allegations that he aided drug traffickers and Colombian rebels were part of a smear campaign against the general.

Speaking before thousands of soldiers standing in formation at a Caracas military base, Chavez urged the military to defend his defense minister, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva.

"They hate the armed forces," Chavez said during Rangel's swearing-in ceremony, referring to his political opponents.

Chavez — a former paratroop commander — said his domestic and international adversaries are bent on undermining the "independence, stability, development and greatness of the republic."

The United States has accused Rangel of aiding drug traffickers and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Venezuela's opposition leaders have echoed those allegations as they gear up for Feb. 12 primaries to pick a challenger to face Chavez in Oct. 7 presidential election.

Rangel's appointment was one of several recent changes in Chavez's inner circle as the president prepares his re-election campaign.

Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who participated in a 1992 coup attempt led by Chavez, took over as National Assembly president earlier this month.

Chavez also announced Tuesday that 72 Russian-made tanks and armored vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft missiles had recently arrived as part of Venezuela's purchases of weapons from Russia.

Chavez has cultivated close ties with Moscow while buying billions of dollars in Russian arms including helicopters, fighter jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.