The Associated Press Published: June 19, 2007
MOSCOW: Russia has started delivery of top-of-the-line fighter jets to Syria under a new deal estimated to be worth US$1 billion, a newspaper said Tuesday - but the report was quickly denied by the state arms trader.
The business daily Kommersant said that Russia had begun delivering five MiG-31E jets under a deal apparently negotiated during Syrian President Bashar Assad's trip to Moscow last autumn.
Commenting on the report, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement that "all of Russia's deals in the sphere of military-technical cooperation comply with international law and Russia's obligations under various treaties and United Nations resolutions." He would not elaborate.
But Sergei Chemezov, head of state arms-trading monopoly Rosoboronexport, flatly denied the Kommersant report. "Russia has no plans to deliver fighter jets to Syria and Iran," Chemezov said at a Paris air show, according to the Interfax news agency.
Russia has shrugged off U.S. and Israeli criticism of its previous weapons deals with Syria and Iran, saying the deals complied with international law.
The contract with Syria will be the first export deal for the MiG-31E, a heavy twin-engined interceptor fighter capable of flying at nearly three times the speed of sound and simultaneously shooting several targets at ranges of up to 180 kilometers (over 110 miles) away.
The aircraft was designed in the 1980s for tackling low-flying cruise missiles and other difficult targets and remains the mainstay of Russia's air defenses. "In the Soviet Union, the MiG-31 was considered a key component of defenses against a possible U.S. attack," Kommersant said.
The newspaper said that Russia had also agreed to provide Syria with an unspecified number of MiG-29M fighters - a version that features a significantly improved range, has an improved radar and carries a broader array of weapons compared to basic MiG-29 model.
The delivery of new fighters to Syria which has a fleet of older MiG jets will dramatically improve its air force capability.
Moscow was the main weapons supplier to Syria during the Soviet era, and the two nations have moved recently to reinvigorate their economic, military and political ties. In 2005, Moscow agreed to write off nearly three-quarters of Syria's US$13.4 billion debt in a bid to boost ties and win broader clout in the region.
Iran could finance the new fighter jets deal under a defense cooperation treaty with Syria, Kommersant said.
Israel claimed that Hezbollah fighters used Russian missiles during a 34-day war in Lebanon last year. It said that Russian arms were sold to Syria and Iran, which sent them on to their Hezbollah proxies. Russian officials dismissed the accusations.
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