Helicopter Crash Kills 18 Soldiers in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Eighteen Venezuelan soldiers, including a brigadier general, died when their helicopter crashed Sunday near Venezuela's border with Colombia, President Hugo Chavez said.

The soldiers were patrolling the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer) border separating Venezuela and Colombia when the local military base lost contact with the Mi-35 helicopter shortly after midday. The military helicopter crashed near the town of El Alto de Rubio, the state-run Bolivarian News Agency reported.

Neither Chavez nor the Venezuelan military mentioned the cause of the crash.

Two pilots and the entire crew were killed. Army Brig. Gen. Domingo Alberto Feneite was among the victims.

Chavez sent condolences to the families of the victims. "They died while they were on duty and serving the fatherland," he said.

Chavez also referred to U.S. allegations that his government has failed to prevent border incursions by Colombian rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

"They say that we don't fight terrorism, and 18 soldiers die patrolling the border," Chavez said.

The U.S. State Department's annual assessment of terrorism released last week said Venezuela "did not systematically police" the border. It said both Colombian rebels and right-wing paramilitaries "regularly crossed into Venezuelan territory to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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