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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 18:28 GMT
Syrian leader defiant on missiles
Bashar al-Assad (left) and Vladimir Putin
Putin: Talks were "rich and extremely productive"
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has defended his country's right to purchase Russian anti-aircraft missiles despite protests from Israel.

However, Mr Assad, on a four-day visit to Moscow, said no contracts would be discussed on this occasion.

Russia signalled it was ready to write off billions of dollars in Syrian debt that dates back to Soviet times.

At a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Mr Assad called for a greater Russian role in the Middle East.

He said "the Arab world attaches great hope to a strengthening of Russia's position" in the region.

Mr Putin told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday that the sides had held "rich and extremely productive talks".

Russia agreed to write off 73%, or $9.8bn, of Syria's $13.4bn net debts to Moscow, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said.

Both sides insisted that sales of Russian missiles to Syria were not on the agenda.

The prospect of such a sale has angered Israel and made the US threaten Russia with sanctions.

Russian officials have denied any actual negotiations took place. Russian and Israeli newspapers had reported that Syria was planning to acquire either Iskander-E missiles capable of reaching almost any target in Israel or Igla portable surface-air missiles.

'Defensive' weapons

Mr Assad insisted that Syria needed missiles only to protect itself from Israeli air raids.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
If Israel is against us acquiring them [missiles], it's as if it was saying 'We want to attack Syria but we don't want them to protect themselves'
Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria

"These are defensive weapons, air defence, to prevent aircraft from entering our airspace," he said, addressing an audience at a Moscow university.

"If Israel is against us acquiring them, it's as if it was saying 'We want to attack Syria but we don't want them to protect themselves."

Mr Assad said that "military and technical" co-operation with Russia was on the agenda of his visit, but no specific contracts would be discussed.

The Israelis are believed to fear that the missiles might end up in the hands of Lebanon's radical Hezbollah movement and be used against Israeli targets.

The US State Department has warned that Russia could face sanctions if any sale of military equipment to Syria goes ahead.




SEE ALSO:
Syrian leader arrives in Moscow
24 Jan 05 |  Europe
Abbas win kindles press hopes
10 Jan 05 |  Middle East
Palestinians meet Syria's Assad
07 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Sharon rejects talks with Syria
02 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Syria
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Syria
08 Dec 04 |  Country profiles


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