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Putin defends missile sales to Syria

AFP | April 28, 2005

President Vladimir Putin, on a historic visit to Israel, defended Russia's planned sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, insisting that they would pose no danger to the Jewish state.

"The system we are going to supply to Syria is short range and poses no threat whatsoever to Israeli territory," Putin told a news conference after talks with Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

Moscow's planned sale of the military equipment to Damascus is one of the principle bones of contention between Russia and Israel, which could threaten to overshadow the first ever visit by a Kremlin leader to the Jewish state.

Katsav acknowledged there were "disagreements" between Israel and Russia on the planned sale of the anti-aircraft missiles, which he said "risked reducing Israel's abilities to fight terrorism".

Putin also pointed out that nine billion dollars worth of weapons was sold to the Middle East from countries across the globe.

"Russia is delivering less than 500 million dollars to the Middle East so what can be the reason for worry by our Israeli partners?" he said. "If they were ever to be used, you would have to attack Syria."

Putin said he had blocked the Russian military from selling far more serious hardware to countries in the Middle East, including Syria.

"We are not planning to do anything that would upset the balance of forces in the region," he said.

"There were discussions and our military had intended to deliver, including to Syria, the latest rocket system, the Iskander," he said. "But I forbade that so you cannot say we are acting irresponsibly -- quite the opposite."

"Despite steps taken by the Russian president to reduce the danger, we feel there is a danger of deadly weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah," Katsav added, referring to the Syrian-backed Lebanese-based Shiite movement.

According to the Israeli government the short-range Strelets missiles would arm an unfriendly neighbour and could fall into the hands of militants, which at least one official said could pose "a grave danger to civil aviation."

Moscow says it has the right to sell weapons and that the Strelets are of a purely defensive nature.


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