Israel denies it has access to Azerbaijan air bases

BAKU, April 23 Mon Apr 23, 2012 12:54pm EDT

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BAKU, April 23 (Reuters) - Israel denied on Monday that it had gained access to air bases in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which borders its foe Iran.

"Such reports are from the sphere of science fiction and do not correspond with the truth," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters in the Azeri capital Baku.

Israel fears that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at producing weapons. Iran says it is purely for power generation and other peaceful purposes.

Israel's defence minister said last week that military action aimed to ensure that does not happen remains an option even while nuclear negotiations between Tehran and six global powers are under way after more than a year's hiatus.

There has been media speculation that Israel would seek to use Azerbaijan as a launching ground for potential attacks on Iran, and the U.S. journal Foreign Policy last month cited sources as saying the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to air bases on Iran's northern border.

"People with a very rich imagination publish such stories ... Media publish a lot of speculation," Lieberman said, adding that he discussed bilateral relations as well as the "issue of Iran" with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, but did not go into details.

"Relations with Azerbaijan could not be better. They are trusting and productive," he said.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Shi'ite Muslim country with a secular government, is home to more than 9,000 Jews in a population of 9 million and has friendly ties with Israel as well as with the United States and Russia.

A major energy producer, it exports oil to Israel and imports weapons and military hardware.

Relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, its much larger southern neighbour, have been tense in recent months.

Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israeli intelligence in killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Last month, security forces arrested several Azeris and Iranians on suspicion of spying for Iran, plotting to attack Western targets and smuggling arms from Iran into Azerbaijan. (Reporting by Lada Evgrashina; writing by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; editing by Steve Gutterman)

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