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. Russia confirms plan to arm Syria over Israeli, US objections
MOSCOW (AFP) Feb 16, 2005
Russia confirmed Wednesday that it intended to sell a new air defense missile system to Syria despite Israeli and US opposition, but insisted the weaponry was only of short-range capability and would not upset the balance of military power in the Middle East.

"Negotiations are now taking place on delivery to this country of the 'Strelets' close-range anti-air system," the Russian defense ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

The ministry said the system that Moscow planned to sell to Syria would be mounted on vehicles and could not be stripped down for "man-portable" shoulder-launch use.

"This type of system is not mobile, these are not man-portable anti-aircraft systems, and without special means of transport their use is impossible," said a senior defense ministry official quoted earlier by Interfax news agency.

The "Strelets" system was however derived from another anti-air missile weapon made by Russia, the "Igla," that was man-portable, said the official, who was not further identified.

So-called man-portable missiles are easier to steal and use, making them a particular source of worry for government security agencies around the world trying to prevent such material from falling into the hands of unauthorized organizations.

In December 2002, an attempt was made to shoot down an Israeli charter jet full of holidaymakers as it took off from an airport in the Kenyan port of Mombasa using just such a man-portable, surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile.

The missile narrowly missed the plane, but the incident set off alarm bells for defense and civil aviation security officials in Israel and elsewhere who have since developed anti-missile defense systems for mounting on civilian passenger planes to thwart surface-to-air missile attacks.

The Russian defense official also reiterated Moscow's previous denials of rumors that it planned to sell Syria its longer-range tactical "Iskander" missile, a highly-accurate warhead delivery vehicle capable of hitting a target virtually anywhere in Israel from Syrian territory.

"All reports of a possible delivery to Damascus of the 'Iskander' system ... do not correspond to reality," the ministry said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday in Jerusalem that Israel had been informed by Russia that a sale of weapons to Syria would go ahead despite Israeli objections.

"We worry about that and we don't think that that should have happened," Sharon said at a news conference.

The administration of US President George W. Bush, which has accused Syria of supporting Islamic militants opposing the Middle East peace process and of backing insurgents in its neighbor Iraq, also expressed disquiet.

"We don't think state sponsors of terrorism should be sold weapons of any kind," said a US official, who asked not to be named.

Washington announced Tuesday that it had recalled its ambassador to Damascus after Monday's assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, blaming it indirectly at least on the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the English-language Israeli daily Jerusalem Post last month that the sale would not upset the balance of power in the Middle East and that it involved equipment that could solely be used for defensive purposes.

Both Israel and the United States have expressed disquiet about a possible sale of Russian-made man-portable missiles to Syria, fearing that they could end up in the hands of Lebanon's Damascus-backed Hezbollah Shiite militia.

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