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MOSCOW — Two Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers arrived in Venezuela on Monday, a deployment that comes amid soaring Russia-U.S. tensions.
Russia's Defense Ministry said a pair of Tu-160 bombers landed at Maiquetia airport outside Caracas on Monday following a 6,200-mile flight. It didn't say whether the bombers were carrying any weapons and didn't say how long they would stay in Venezuela.
The ministry said the bombers were shadowed by Norwegian F-18 fighter jets during part of their flight. It added that a heavy-lift An-124 Ruslan cargo plane and an Il-62 passenger plane accompanied the bombers to Maiquetia.
The Tu-160 can carry conventional or nuclear-tipped cruise missiles with a range of 3,410 miles. Such bombers took part in Russia's campaign in Syria, where they launched conventionally armed Kh-101 cruise missiles for the first time in combat.
Code-named Blackjack by NATO, the massive warplane is capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. Russia has upgraded its Tu-160 fleet with new weapons and electronics, and it plans to produce a modernized version of the bomber.
The bombers' deployment follows Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's visit to Moscow last week to shore up political and economic assistance even as his country has been struggling to pay billions of dollars owed to Russia.
Russia is a major political ally of Venezuela, which has become increasingly isolated in the world under growing sanctions led by the United States and the European Union, which accuse Maduro of undermining democratic institutions to hold onto power while overseeing an economic and political crisis that is worse than the Great Depression.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at last week's meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, that Russia would continue to send its military aircraft and warships to visit Venezuela as part of bilateral military cooperation.
Russia sent its Tu-160 strategic bombers and a missile cruiser to visit Venezuela in 2008 amid tensions with the United States after Russia's brief war with Georgia. A pair of Tu-160s also visited Venezuela in 2013.
Russian-U.S. relations are at post-Cold War lows over Ukraine, the war in Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Russia has bristled at the United States and other NATO allies for deploying their troops and weapons near its borders.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter that delivery of the planes exemplified "two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer."
Asked about the Russian bombers, Col. Rob Manning, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said he had no specific information.
However, Manning cited the humanitarian assistance provided in Central and South American by a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, in the past eight weeks. Numerous Venezuelan migrants were among the people who received medical and dental treatment.
"Contrast this with Russia, whose approach to the manmade disaster in Venezuela is to send bomber aircraft instead of humanitarian assistance," Manning said.