Venezuelan ambassador arrives in Washington

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's
ambassador returned to Washington on Friday as the nations moved to
repair strained diplomatic ties, but the sides are not completely
ready to bury the hatchet.

Upon arriving in the United States, Venezuelan Ambassador
Bernardo Alvarez called the countries' decision to restore
top-level diplomatic envoys the "first step in normalizing
relations." U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy is expected to arrive in
Caracas next week.

But late Friday Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said
he'd spoken with Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for the
Americas, to express concern over comments made by Gen. Douglas
Fraser, who took the helm of U.S. military operations in Latin
American and the Caribbean on Thursday.

Fraser had said he was concerned over an apparent military
buildup in Venezuela.

"I don't see a conventional military threat in the region, so
I'm uncertain of why they see a need to build their military to the
point that they are pursuing," he said.

Chavez's government has signed contracts with Russia to purchase more than US$4.4 billion worth of arms since 2005 - including 24 Russian Sukhoi fighter jets and 53 attack helicopters. Venezuela is
also planning to buy K-8 flight training and light attack aircraft
from China.

Maduro accused Fraser of "meddling in the country's internal
affairs," and lamented that his "offensive" comments were made
at the same time that both governments decided to return their
ambassadors.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Relations between Venezuela and the U.S. soured during the Bush
administration and reached a low point in September, when Chavez
expelled Duddy and recalled Alvarez. He did so in solidarity with
Bolivian President Evo Morales, who expelled the U.S. ambassador to
his nation on accusations of inciting opposition violence.

Washington denied those charges and responded by kicking out
both nations' ambassadors.

But Chavez and President Barack Obama have both expressed hope for improved relations. The two governments reached an agreement to return their envoys this week.


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