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Putin in Venezuela for Energy Talks with Chavez

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made his first visit to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez and sign agreements aimed at deepening energy, financial and military ties.

Prime Minister Putin was received with military honors Friday as President Chavez welcomed him to Venezuela. They are expected to establish a joint venture for oil and gas exploration in eastern Venezuela. The venture is expected to produce 50,000 barrels of oil per day this year.

Earlier Friday, Mr. Chavez accompanied Prime Minister Putin on a tour of a Russian merchant marine vessel that will be used to train Venezuelan sailors under one of the agreements being signed Friday. Mr. Putin also laid a wreath at the tomb of South American independence icon Simon Bolivar.

Separately, Mr. Putin was scheduled to meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales in Caracas before heading back to Russia.

President Chavez has forged close ties with Russia in recent years and has spent more than $4 billion on Russian-made weapons. Venezuela relies on China and Russia as its main military suppliers.

Mr. Chavez, who traveled to Moscow last year, has said he hopes Russian cooperation will reach as far as the space industry.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department made light of Venezuela's suggestion the country wants to set up a space program with Russian help.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the South American nation would do better to look at "terrestrial" concerns, noting that Venezuela was "largely closed this week due to energy shortages."

The United States has previously cautioned Venezuela against continuing its arms buildup, warning its actions could endanger regional stability.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.