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World News

Russia plans to raise navy presence in Syria: diplomat

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The Russian navy will make more use of Syrian ports as part of increased military presence in the Mediterranean, a Russian diplomat said on Wednesday.

A woman sits facing the sea at the Syrian resort of Tartous, on the Mediterranean, in this 2004 file photo. REUTERS /Khaled al-Hariri/Files

The announcement comes as tensions rise between Moscow and the West over Russia’s role in Georgia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed Russia’s recent offensive on Georgia in support of a separatist province during a visit to Russia last week.

“Our Navy presence in the Mediterranean will increase. Russian vessels will be visiting Syria and other friendly ports more frequently,” Igor Belyaev, the Russian charge d’affaires, told reporters in the Syrian capital.

“The visits are continuing,” he added.

Russia relies on Syria’s Tartous port as a main stopping point in the Mediterranean, although ties between the two countries have cooled since the collapse of Communism, when Moscow supplied Syria with billions of dollars worth of arms.

Internet news sites have reported that a Russian naval unit, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, docked at Tartous earlier this month.

Belyaev would not be drawn on specifics, or whether new military agreements with Syria were reached during Assad’s meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a Black Sea resort on Thursday.

“The two leaders gave their directions to advance ties in the economy, trade and energy fields, as well as military cooperation,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week Russia was prepared to sell Syria more arms as long as they do not disturb the “regional balance of power”.

SUPERIORITY

Lavrov was referring to the position of Israel, which has a superior military and is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons.

Syria, which is technically at war with the Jewish state, has embarked on a drive to upgrade its military in recent years. The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian diplomat as saying that Syria and Russia were working on deals involving Damascus buying anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems.

The Syrian government has denied reports in Russian media that Assad had said he was ready to host advanced Russian Iskander missiles, which would be able to hit Israeli territory. Israel made it clear it opposes sale of such weapons to Syria.

Diplomats in the Syrian capital said Russia would not easily sell Syria any weapons that could seriously challenge Israel’s military superiority.

“It remains to be seen how much the Russians would come through for Syria. Damascus also does not want to jeopardize its ongoing peace talks with Israel,” one of the diplomats said.

Israeli warplanes raided a target in eastern Syria in September. The two countries have since embarked on indirect peace talks.

The United States, Israel’s chief ally, said the target was a nuclear complex under construction with the help of North Korea. Syria denied the accusation and said it had no secret nuclear facilities.

Editing by Ralph Boulton

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