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Russia to defy US by selling anti-ship missiles to Syria

September 19, 2010

Russia is to defy Israel and the United States by supplying Syria with advanced anti-ship missiles despite fears that they could fall into the hands of Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed group based in southern Lebanon.

Anatoly Serdyukov, the Russian foreign minister, brushed aside pleas to halt the delivery of a consignment of P-800 Yakhont cruise missiles, arguing that Moscow had supplied Syria with an older version of the missile and had not encountered problems.

“The US and Israel ask us not to supply Syria with Yakhont,” he told reporters during a confidence-building visit to the Pentagon. “But we do not see the concerns expressed by them that these arms will fall into the hands of terrorists.

“If that system did not fall into the hands of terrorists then why should the new one?”

Israel says the sale, which was initially agreed in 2007, threatens to alter the strategic military balance in the Levant because the missile could pose a serious threat to its naval ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

With a range of nearly 200 miles, the Yakhont is known for its accuracy and its ability to avoid detection because of its speed and low trajectory. It is also far more sophisticated that any of the anti-ship missiles presently in Syria’s arsenal.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that Syria passed on the earlier version of the Yakhont to Hizbollah, Russian weaponry has ended up in the hands of the militant Shia group before.

Kornet anti-tank rockets, supplied by Russia to the Syrian defence ministry, were discovered by the Daily Telegraph in abandoned Hizbollah positions following Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, urged Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, to abandon the missile sale last month. Similar appeals have been made in recent weeks by the Israeli and US defence ministers.

Following the resumption this month of peace talks with the Palestinian leadership, Israel fears that Hizbollah and Hamas, the Islamist group which controls Gaza, could use violence to undermine the negotiations.

Israeli soldiers shot dead a Hamas commander in the West Bank on Friday, two weeks after the group claimed responsibility for killing four Jewish settlers and wounding two others.

Salam Fayyad, the moderate prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, called the killing a “dangerous escalation” and gave warning that it could jeopardize progress in the peace talks.

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