White House fury as Russian nuclear planes visit Venezuela
Two Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons have landed in Venezuela in a show of support which has infuriated Washington.
General Vladimir Padrino, the Venezuelan defence minister, welcomed about 100 Russian pilots and other personnel after the two TU-160s and two other aircraft landed at the international airport that serves Caracas on Monday.
He said the deployment showed "we also are preparing to defend Venezuela to the last inch when necessary".
Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, has frequently alleged that the US is planning an invasion.
Mr Padrino noted that Russian aircraft had visited before in 2013, but said their current deployment was part of a "new experience," and was designed to "raise the level of interoperability of the aerospace defence systems" of both countries.
Mr Maduro has found himself increasingly isolated as Donald Trump takes an increasingly aggressive stance against his regime.
With many of his allies under sanctions and financial transactions blocked, Mr Maduro has cultivated friendships with America's adversaries.
He said talks with President Putin in Moscow this month yielded Russian investment in his country's oil and gold sectors.
It was not clear how long the Russian planes would stay in Venezuela, nor what their mission would be.
"Russia's government has sent bombers halfway around the world to Venezuela," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted.
"The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer."
The Kremlin rejected Mr Pompeo's criticism.
"As for the idea that we are squandering money, we do not agree. It's not really appropriate for a country half of whose defence budget could feed the whole of Africa to be making such statements," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The developments come as Mr Trump escalated his threat to shut down the US government over his demand for funding of his Mexican border wall.
At a heated White House meeting with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he said: "If we don't have border security, we'll shut down the government."
Government funding for some agencies is set to expire on December 21, threatening a partial shutdown.
Mr Trump earlier vowed to use the US military to build his wall even if he does not get funding.
In a series of early morning tweets, Mr Trump also insisted that his efforts to stop a caravan of migrants seeking to reach the US had been a great success.
The president deployed the US military to the border area before the November 6 congressional elections, calling the caravan an "invasion".
Critics decried the action as a politically motivated stunt.