INTERNATIONAL >Chavez hosts close ally Ahmadinejad

CARACAS - Agence France-Presse

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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (R) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas January 9, 2012. REUTERS Photo

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (R) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas January 9, 2012. REUTERS Photo

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hosted Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday to ink a series of deals, just a week after boasting about collaboration with Tehran on a drone project.
Chavez, who has been battling cancer for more than a year and faces a tough re-election contest in October, has expressed "solidarity" with key ally Iran as it faces growing pressure over its suspect nuclear program.
The two firebrand leaders, who share a common hostility towards the United States, were scheduled to hold a joint press conference at Chavez's Miraflores presidential palace at 8:00 pm local time (0030 GMT Saturday).
Chavez said he planned to ink bilateral cooperation deals with Ahmadinejad on a wide range of areas, from housing to technology.
Iran and Venezuela also engage in military cooperation. Chavez raised hackles last week when he announced that, with Iranian help, he had made his first drone and planned to soon begin exporting the unmanned aircraft.
A Venezuelan general said the drone, which "does not carry arms," has a 100-kilometer (60 mile) sweep, can fly solo for some 90 minutes and reach an altitude of 3,000 meters (9,000 feet).
The United States -- which has controversially waged drone strikes remotely against suspected militants in Pakistan and Yemen -- expressed caution about Chavez's announcement.
"The Venezuelans make lots of extravagant claims. So do the Iranians," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
Iran and Venezuela have mutual investment of about $5 billion in factories to make cement, satellites, food, tractors and bicycles.
Under escalating pressure from the West over its nuclear activities, Iran has sought closer political and economic relations with countries far and wide, including many in Latin America.
Ahmadinejad will arrive in Caracas from the UN-sponsored Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in Brazil.
En route to Rio, the Iranian leader stopped in Bolivia to court support from another leftist Latin American nation that has tense ties with the United States.
Chavez has visited Tehran 13 times since taking power in 1999.
He is hoping for a third term in October 7 elections, but faces a strong challenge from an often fractious opposition that has now united behind center-left rival Henrique Capriles.
In May, the 57-year-old Chavez sought treatment in Cuba, his closest regional ally, after a recurrence of the cancer which he first disclosed last year.
The Venezuelan government has disclosed few details about Chavez's health, leading to intense speculation over the political future of Latin America's most prominent leftist leader.


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