- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel is trying to halt a weapons deal under which Russia agreed to supply advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, fearing the missiles could fall into the hands of Lebanese guerrillas, Israeli officials said yesterday.

Israeli officials said the deal for the sale of the Igla SA-18s was signed several days ago. They are worried that the anti-aircraft missiles could be used by Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas, who have attacked Israel’s northern border. The United States also could be concerned the missiles could be obtained by Iraqi insurgents, analysts said.

A deputy Russian foreign minister is in the region to discuss the matter, Israeli officials said on the condition of anonymity.

Asked about the deal, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said, “We have close contacts with the Russians. We had consultations over the past few days, and we hope to reach the necessary agreement.”

The press service of Russia’s main weapons export company, Rosoboronexport, said it had no information that the country was planning such a sale.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “We are against the sale of weaponry to Syria,” which he called a sponsor of terrorism.

“The Russians know about our policy,” Mr. Boucher said before a scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov.

The Igla SA-18s are among the most sophisticated shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles available. Because of their simplicity, light weight and a built-in training system, they also are an ideal weapon for militants, military analysts said.

“We have enough problems on the ground with Syria, and we don’t need more problems from the sky,” Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said.

Israeli officials were looking at several options for dealing with the arms sale, including involving Washington.

But officials said Israel could decide to allow the deal to go through rather than risk its relations with Russia, which it has been working to improve since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir denied a report by the Moscow daily Kommersant that Israel had recalled its ambassador in response to the deal. The ambassador is in Israel but was to return to Moscow later yesterday or today, he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is scheduled to visit Russia from Jan. 24 to Jan. 28.

Israeli press reports say Mr. Assad was furious when Israeli jets buzzed around one of his palaces while he was in residence, and is determined to beef up his country’s air defenses.

Paul Beaver, a London-based defense analyst, said Russia has been upgrading Syrian military equipment for years but has not sold the Arab country new arms since 1990.

Israeli-Russian relations have improved greatly in the past 15 years. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is of Russian descent, has visited Moscow three times since taking office in 2001.

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