BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon has accepted a Russian aid offer comprising millions of bullets that will be given to its police force, the office of the caretaker prime minister said on Monday, denying reports an offer of Russian military aid had been turned down.
News that the Russian offer had been rejected was first reported by the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar on Monday, which said the ammunition had been offered to Lebanon’s U.S.-backed army and had been turned down.
A military source confirmed the army had declined the offer, saying this was for technical reasons linked to the types of weapons used by the Lebanese military and had nothing to do with politics.
The media office of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said the al-Akhbar article was “devoid of truth”.
“The Press Office clarifies that this is not true and that the Russian side was informed of the acceptance to receive the donation, from which the Internal Security Forces in the Ministry of Interior will benefit,” it said in a statement.
Al-Akhbar, which is supportive of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the heavily armed Iranian-backed Shi’ite group, said the army’s decision to rebuff the Russian offer was political, saying the United States was against the army accepting Russian aid.
A senior Lebanese political source told Reuters that while the type of weapons and ammunition used by the Lebanese army had been cited as the reason for turning down the Russian offer, U.S. pressure could have been a reason.
The United States is the biggest donor to the Lebanese army, providing more than $1.5 billion in support since 2006.
Washington says the support has aimed to strengthen the army as “the sole” military force defending Lebanon, where Hezbollah holds significant sway, and to counter threats from neighboring Syria.
Russian forces are widely deployed in neighboring Syria, where they have been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad since 2015 alongside Iranian-backed groups including Hezbollah - which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington.
Earlier this year, Russia tabled what appeared to be more wide-ranging military cooperation with Lebanon.
A draft military accord published by the Russian news agency TASS in February set out a five-year renewable agreement included general aspirations of improving information exchanges, developing military training and fighting terrorism.
Local media and a Western diplomat said Russia was offering a $1 billion line of credit to the Lebanese military for arms and other military purchases.
The military source noted Lebanon still maintains military ties with Russia, saying the army signed a deal with Moscow in 2017 to purchase 104 military transport vehicles and that Lebanese military officers still undergo training in Russia.
The United States has been increasing pressure on Russia globally through sanctions in recent years over actions including its role in annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, a nerve agent attack in Britain, allegations of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and its role in Syria.
Under a 2017 law, the United States can impose sanctions on countries that engage in “significant transactions” with the Russian military.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Laila Bassam; Editing by Mark Heinrich/Tom Perry