Israeli Protests Fail to Block Russian Arms Sales to Syria

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Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has made clear his determination to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, despite pressure from Israeli leaders to revoke the deal.

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

Mr Sharon, whose parents were born in Russia, greeted Mr Putin in Russian and told him 'he should feel among brothers' on his visit to Israel. Mr Putin, reflecting that he was glad to be visiting at the time of the Passover and the Orthodox Christian Easter, declared: 'I would like to wish the Jewish people well with all my heart; I wish joy for the entire Jewish family.'

But on arms for Syria; on the best way of securing Middle East peace; and on Russia's help for Iran's nuclear programme " which Mr Putin insisted would be confined to peaceful uses " the talks did little to remove the important differences which remain between the two governments.

Mr Putin strongly defended his decision to sell SA-18 missiles to Syria. He disclosed in talks with Moshe Katsav, the Israeli President, that he had vetoed a contract also to sell Iskander missiles, which have a longer range, to Damascus on the grounds that Israel would not be able to intercept them.

By contrast, the SA-18s 'cannot reach Israeli territory' Mr Putin said, adding: 'To come within their range, you have to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?'

Responding to Israeli fears that the weapons could fall into the hands of Hizbollah, Mr Putin said that the missiles could not be shoulder-fired and would not work if uncoupled from the vehicles on which they were mounted.

Mr Putin did not mention yesterday that Israeli warplanes had indeed bombed alleged militant training bases outside Damascus on 5 October 2003 and had since 'buzzed' one of the Syrian President Bashar Assad's palaces. …