Syrian missile deal puts new strain on Israel's tense relationship with Moscow

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The Independent Online

Israel kept a stern official silence last night in the face of reports that Russia was on the brink of selling Syria sophisticated missiles in the biggest arms deal between the two countries for 15 years.

Israel kept a stern official silence last night in the face of reports that Russia was on the brink of selling Syria sophisticated missiles in the biggest arms deal between the two countries for 15 years.

The reports were the most plausible explanation yet for what had seemed to be a mysterious mood of crisis in relations between Russia and Israel in the preparations for a three-day visit to Moscow this month by the Syrian President, Bashar Assad.

The weaponry for sale to the Syrians included the Iskander E missile with a target range which would cover most of Israel, including its nuclear reactor site at Dimona, the Moscow newspaper Kommersant reported.

A second report on Israeli TV's Channel Two said Russia had plans to sell Syria an arms package which included SA-18 shoulder-fired missiles which could threaten Israel's aircraft flying over Syria and Lebanon in an attempt to curb attacks by Hizbollah guerrillas over her northern border.

Israel blames Syria for backing militant Palestinian factions and financing Hizbollah, which in turn has acknowledged helping the Palestinian factions making attacks inside Israel and the occupied territories.

Syrian military targets have been attacked by Israeli planes over the past two years in response to attacks by Hizbollah and factions with bases in Damascus, exposing Syria's air defence systems as, so far, relatively inferior.

A major missile purchase from Moscow, causing fears of a revival of the old Cold War relationship between the Soviet Union and one of Israel's hostile neighbours, could alter the balance of air power. Neither the defence ministry nor the foreign ministry would comment last night, though the foreign ministry said that a claim in the Moscow newspaper's report that Israel's ambassador to Russia had been recalled was untrue, and that he was home on holiday.

The defence ministry referred inquiries to the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose spokesman Raanan Gissin also declined comment.

Professor Gerald Sternberg, one of the country's leading authorities on security and strategic matters, said last night that he did not know if the reports were true but that they were "plausible". He added: "If Syria were buying a long-range missile from Russia it would be very destabilising." He said Russia wanted cash but one unanswered question was how Syria would fund the purchase.

Kommersant said Damascus asked for 18 Iskander missiles in August but were told they had not been fully tested. The Syrians had now been told the missiles were ready.

Political sources were quoted yesterday as dismissing an earlier Channel Two report that the crisis had been caused by inferences that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, had suggested Israelis had interfered in the recent elections in Ukraine on what started as the opposition side.

The daily Haaretz, which originally broke the story that there were intense discussions at the highest level of government on relations with Russia, said the sources had said the explanation was some "completely different" aspect of Russia's conduct. A Foreign Ministry spokesman could not even confirm that Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Saltanov, been holding talks on the potential crisis on a visit to Israel yesterday. In Gaza yesterday, a Jewish settler was killed and three Israeli soldiers wounded in an ambush which appeared to challenge the stated desire by Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian President, to call a halt to violence by the armed factions. Two Islamic Jihad militants cut through a security fence surrounding the settler enclave of Morag and planted explosives on a road which blew up as an Israeli Jeep passed.

A spokesman for the faction, using the name Abu Abdullah, declared: "Our heroic attack today responds to those who describe such attacks as the smaller jihad that must end. It will never end until Palestine is returned, through the barrel of our guns."

Earlier, Israeli forces shot dead two wanted militants in Gaza City in the first military operation inside the Strip since their pullback during the Palestinian elections. A senior Palestinian Authority official, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said: "What happened in Gaza and the West Bank today underlines the urgency of reaching a mutual ceasefire to pave the way back to the negotiating table to follow the [internationally agreed] road map."