Putin, Egypt's Sisi discuss restart of flights, sign nuclear deal

CAIRO (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday, agreeing to resume civilian flights which Moscow halted more than two years ago after militants bombed a Russian tourist jet over the Sinai.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

Putin’s latest visit to Cairo reflects the deepening ties between Russia and Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and a strategic U.S. partner in the Middle East because of its control of the Suez Canal.

Putin, who flew on to Turkey, briefly visited a Russian base in Syria before arriving in Egypt and ordered Russian forces to start withdrawing from Syria after a two-year military campaign there.

In Cairo, Egyptian and Russian ministers signed a $21 billion deal to start work on Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant and Putin said Moscow was ready to resume Russian civilian flights to Egypt.

Moscow halted civilian air traffic to Egypt in 2015 after militants detonated a bomb on a Russian Metrojet flight, downing the jet leaving from the tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and killing 224 people on board.

The attack and Moscow’s decision damaged Egypt’s already struggling tourism industry. Egyptian airport inspections and talks to resume flights have been going on for months.

“The Russian security services have reported to me that, on the whole, we are ready for opening the direct air link between Moscow and Cairo,” Putin said. “This would require signing a corresponding intergovernmental protocol.”

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Russia’s transport minister told reporters flights could resume in early February, and Russia was prepared to sign a protocol with Egypt this week.

Earlier, Russian state nuclear company Rosatom said the Dabaa nuclear station it will build in Egypt will have four reactors and cost up to $21 billion. Construction is expected to finish in 2028-2029.

Moscow and Cairo signed an initial agreement in 2015 for Russia to build the plant, with Russia extending a loan to Egypt to cover the cost of construction.

Sisi said the two leaders had also discussed industrial projects, trade and Russian investments in Egypt, including in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.


Sisi and Putin also discussed Syria and mutual rejection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that has triggered protests across the region and from European capitals.

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“We had a detailed exchange of views on key international issues. Our approaches either coincide completely or are really quite close,” Putin said.

The high-level Russian visit comes after the U.S. government in August decided to deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and to delay another $195 million because of its failure to make progress on human rights and democratic norms.

Russia launched a military operation to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, and there are signs Moscow is keen to expand its military presence in the region.

Neither leader on Monday mentioned an announcement from November when Russia’s government published a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt allowing both countries to use each other’s air space and air bases for their military planes.

But Putin has been steadily building relations with Egypt. On his first visit to Cairo in 2015, he was the first leader of a major power to meet with Sisi after the former Egyptian army commander ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

That prompted Washington to cool relations with Egypt, and the U.S. government suspended some military aid.

Since then the two leaders have increased cooperation, reviving the historical alliance between Egypt and Soviet Union of the 1970s.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba; Editing by Richard Balmforth