Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gestures during a news conference on April 11, 2003. ((Leslie Mazoch/Associated Press))

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says his country hasordered 24 Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets and is planning to build South America's first factory to make Kalashnikov machine guns.

TheSukhois would replace a fleet of U.S.-made F16 fighters that cannot be properly maintained because of an arms and spare parts embargo announced by Washington last month.

The United States considers Chavez's left-of-centre government a destabilizing influence in Latin America.

Chavezis Cuban leader Fidel Castro's closest ally in the region, and the state department accuses the Venezuelan head of supporting leftist guerrilla groups in Colombia.

Lavish weapon spending

Soaring profits from Venezuela's oil exports have helped the president spend lavishly on new weapons acquisitions which he says are needed for a potential future conflict with the United States.

Recent purchases have included 100,000 automatic rifles from Russia

Speaking during aceremony to present the new rifles to soldiers in Caracas, Chavez said his government would soon build a factory to produce Kalashnikov machine guns.

Chavez, a former paratrooper, was first elected president in 1998, and has since consolidated his support among poor Venezuelans.

His opponents accusehim of repressing dissent and wasting government money on grandiose schemes.