MOSCOW (AFP) — Russia said Monday it was dispatching a nuclear cruiser and other warships and planes to the Caribbean for joint exercises with Venezuela, the first such manoeuvres in the US vicinity since the Cold War.
The announcement came amid soaring tensions between Russia and the United States, including over the presence of US naval vessels sent close to Russian shores to deliver aid to Georgia, but Washington downplayed its significance.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Russian navy said the joint manoeuvres would take place in November under an agreement sealed when the leaders of the two countries met in Moscow in July.
Among the Russian ships to take part in the exercises would be the heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great, a vessel with massive firepower whose cruise missiles can deliver nuclear or conventional warheads.
Foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the Admiral Chabanenko, Russia's most modern anti-submarine destroyer, would also join the exercises, along with an unspecified number of anti-submarine naval aircraft.
He said the exercise had been planned for some time and was "not in any way connected to the current situation in the Caucasus," where Russian forces last month fought a brief war with US-ally Georgia.
"It is not aimed at any third country," he said.
The announcement of the manoeuvres however came as tensions between the United States and Russia remained high and after Moscow questioned the use of US warships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia following the conflict.
Asked what he thought about the US naval presence near where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said earlier this month that Moscow would definitely respond, with "calm."
In Washington, the White House, which has sharply criticised Russia over its actions in Georgia and which also has an openly antagonistic relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, shrugged off word of the manoeuvres.
"We've seen the reports and we'll see how the exercise goes," US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
The Pentagon also said it was not concerned.
"We exercise all around the globe and have joint exercises with countries all over the world. So do many other nations," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
In its statement, the Russian navy said the joint manoeuvres with Venezuelan ships would include exercises in sea search and rescue as well as communications training, and would also have an unspecified aviation component.
The Venezuelan navy announced Saturday that four Russian ships with almost 1,000 sailors aboard would carry out joint manoeuvres with the navy of Caracas' leftist government in Venezuelan territorial waters on November 10-14.
The Peter the Great cruiser is one of what NATO refers to as "Kirov Class" heavy missile cruise ships, the world's largest naval cruisers.
The ship is armed with the Granit long-range anti-ship missile system, which is known in the West as the Shipwreck missile. It also has a sophisticated air defence missile system capable of striking both air and surface targets.
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