Rumsfeld hears concerns about Chavez weapons buildup

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld passed on an offer of Venezuelan tobacco, but tried to smoke out the government of President Hugo Chavez on the country's recent military buildup.

"I don't know of anyone threatening Venezuela, anyone in this hemisphere," said Rumsfeld, who is attending a meeting here of Western hemisphere military leaders many of them concerned about the weapons, jets and helicopters Chavez is buying.

Other countries in the region are worried that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists, Rumsfeld told reporters Monday, adding, "I can understand neighbors being concerned."

While he raised questions about the buildup, he also exchanged greetings with Venezuelan defense minister Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, who also is attending the meeting.

"I have spoken to Mr. Rumsfeld to convince him that he should try smoking Venezuela's good tobacco," Baduel told the Associated Press. "He said he doesn't smoke, that his wife wouldn't let him."

Baduel, who did not meet one-on-one with Rumsfeld, also said his country's recent military spending spree wasn't "an arms race," despite Washington's protests.

Rumsfeld also did not meet with Chavez, who has repeatedly charged that United States is planning to invade his country, a claim American officials dismiss as preposterous. And he said Sunday that he's heard the Bush administration is plotting to assassinate him or topple his regime.

U.S. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, chief of U.S. Southern Command, called the accusation "mindless" and "way over the top." But he also agreed that Venezuela's recent deal to buy roughly $3 billion worth of arms from Russia including rifles, jet fighters and helicopters is triggering "more concern from more countries."