- - Tuesday, November 16, 2010

IRAN

Iran kicks off air-defense war games

TEHRAN | Iran kicked off five days of air-defense war games Tuesday to display the country’s capabilities in protecting its nuclear facilities from possible attack, state television reported.

The drill, which comes as Iran is locked in a standoff with the United States and its European allies over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, aims to “upgrade the combat preparedness” of Iran’s air-defense system, an Iranian air force general said.

“These large-scale military maneuvers … will further improve preparedness to confront possible threats to Iran’s airspace and the very populated, vital landmarks and nuclear centers,” Gen. Ahmad Mighani was quoted as saying by state TV.

The U.S. and its Western allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop atomic weapons, while Tehran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Israel has hinted it might take military action against Iran if international efforts to curb its nuclear program fail.

During Tuesday’s exercises, Iran activated its air-defense system at nuclear facilities across the country, said Gen. Hamid Arjangi, a spokesman for the maneuvers. He said Iranian forces successfully repelled hypothetical enemy planes from reaching nuclear and industrial sites.

ISRAEL

Official: U.S. plan for Mideast hits snag

JERUSALEM | An Israeli official says a vote on an emerging U.S. proposal for restarting Mideast peace talks has been put on hold.

The plan would have Israel freeze new West Bank settlement construction for 90 days to persuade the Palestinians to resume talks. In exchange, Israel would get American military and diplomatic support.

The official said Tuesday that Israel is still waiting for a written U.S. proposal. The official also claimed that the Palestinians have raised objections. The delays mean a Wednesday vote won’t take place.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity under civil-service guidelines.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of playing a premature “blame game.” He said the Palestinians will have no reaction until they see the plan on Wednesday.

LEBANON

Russia to help Lebanese army

BEIRUT | Russia will provide the Lebanese army with free helicopters, tanks and munitions in a deal that will boost the country’s poorly equipped military, officials said Tuesday.

The announcement comes at a time when military assistance to Lebanon is under scrutiny after U.S. lawmakers demanded assurances that U.S. aid will not fall into the hands of Hezbollah.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the Russian aid includes six helicopters, 31 tanks, 130 mm cannon shells and about a half-million different munitions for medium-sized weapons and artillery shells. The statement, which followed Mr. Hariri’s talks in Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, did not say when the aid would be delivered.

Lebanon’s 60,000-strong military has long been poorly equipped and has virtually no air force … except for about 30 unarmed helicopters and several 1950s-era British-made Hawker Hunter jets … and no effective air-defense system. Archenemy Israel routinely flies reconnaissance missions over Lebanon unchallenged.

The news about the Russian aid came just days after two key members of the U.S. Congress released their holds on $100 million in U.S. military aid to the Lebanese army.

SAUDI ARABIA

Pilgrims stone the ‘devil’ as Muslims celebrate Eid

MINA | A human tide of pilgrims, put at nearly 2.8 million, descended Tuesday on the Mina valley carrying bags of pebbles to symbolically stone Satan on the third day of the hajj as Muslims worldwide marked the Eid al-Adha festival.

Small pebbles whizzed above heads as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims rushed to stone Jamarat al-Aqaba, at 100 feet the longest of three walls said to symbolize the devil, also referred to as Ibleess by Muslims.

Pilgrims taking part in this year’s hajj, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage, had arrived overnight at Mina, a tent town in western Saudi Arabia that comes to life five days a year, after returning from rituals marking the high point of the hajj at nearby Mount Arafat on Monday.