Israeli protests fail to block Russian arms sales to Syria

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The Independent Online

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, made clear his determination to go ahead with the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria despite strong pressure from Israeli leaders to revoke it.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, made clear his determination to go ahead with the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria despite strong pressure from Israeli leaders to revoke it.

Neither Russia nor Israel made any effort to disguise the open disagreement on this and other issues ­ including Iran ­ in talks which both Mr Putin and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, nevertheless went out of their way to depict as cementing significantly improved relations between the two countries.

Mr Putin strongly defended his decision to sell SA-18 missiles to Syria, and disclosed for the first time in talks with the Israeli President, Moshe Katsav, that he had vetoed a contract also to sell longer range ­ 185-mile ­ missiles to Damascus on the grounds that Israel would not be able to intercept them. Mr Putin also pointed out Russia's arms sales to the region were worth only $500m (£260m) compared with America's$6.8bn.

Mr Putin said that, to come within range of the anti-aircraft missiles, Israel would "have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?" He said the missiles could not be shoulder-fired and would not work if uncoupled from the Jeeps on which they were mounted. This is unlikely to allay fears in the Israeli security community.

But in an effort to narrow the differences between the two governments ­ whose increased co-operation has been underpinned by trade worth $1.2bn ­ Mr Sharon and Mr Putin agreed to swap information about "Islamic terrorism" which concerns both countries.

Mr Putin also saidhe would do everything to ensure the anti-aircraft missiles would not undermine Israeli security, promising: "Russian weapons will not endanger Israel." Israeli officials said Mr Putin, who told Mr SharonIsrael was a "strategic ally" in the "war against terror", now "understands our position better" on the Syrian missiles.

Mr Putin did not publicly repeat his call ­ made in Cairo ­ for a Middle East summit in Moscow, which has received short shrift from Israel and the US.

While aides to Mr Sharon had earlier reacted sharply to Russian plans to provide armoured personnel carriers and other equipment to the Palestinian security forces, both governments agreed to discuss ways in which Russia could help Palestinian security. But the Russian President, who will hold talks today with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, warned both sides not to take actions which would prejudice final status talks. This appeared to be a thinly coded warning to Israel not to prejudice talks on a final peace deal on borders and on Jerusalem by settlement expansion.

Meanwhile, Mr Abbas has used some of his toughest language yet on the need for all militant violence to stop. In a speech to Palestinian police, he said: "Whoever wants to sabotage [the truce] with rocket fire or shooting must be stopped by us, even if that requires using force."

On Iran, Mr Putin also sought to make more palatable what nevertheless remain deep differences with Israel and the US, saying he accepted that current steps to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons were "not enough" and that Iran had to be persuaded to accept nuclear weapons inspections. But Ehud Olmert, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, said Russia was itself selling Iran components which could be used for non-conventional weapons.

Although Mr Sharon has said that Israel does not intend any attack on Iran, the US Defence Security Co-operaton Agency told Congress this week it wanted to authorise the sale of as many as 100 large bunker-buster bombs to Israel, which has been widely seen as a warning to Iran about its nuclear ambitions.

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