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Israel pushes to block sale of Russian missiles to Syria

JERUSALEM -- Israel is trying to halt a weapons deal under which Russia agreed to supply advanced antiaircraft missiles to Syria, fearing the missiles could fall into the hands of Lebanese guerrillas, Israeli officials said yesterday.

The issue has clouded Israeli-Russian relations, which had been steadily improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Israeli officials said the deal for the sale of the Igla SA-18s from Russia to Syria was signed several days ago. They worry the missiles could be used by Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, who have repeatedly attacked Israel's northern border. The United States also could be concerned the missiles could be obtained by Iraqi insurgents.

A deputy Russian foreign minister is in the region to discuss the matter, Israeli officials said on condition of anonymity.

Asked about the deal, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel said: ''We have close contacts with the Russians. We had consultations over the past few days, and we hope to reach the necessary agreement."

The press service of Russia's main arms export company, Rosoboronexport, said it had no information that such a sale was planned. No one was immediately available for comment at the Russian Foreign Ministry.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said ''We are against the sale of weaponry to Syria," which he called a sponsor of terrorism.

''The Russians know about our policy," Boucher said before a scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov of Russia.

The Igla SA-18s are among the most sophisticated shoulder-held antiaircraft missiles. Because of their simplicity, light weight and a built-in training system, they also are an ideal weapon for militants, military analysts said.

''We have enough problems on the ground with Syria, and we don't need more problems from the sky," Vice Premier Shimon Peres said.

Israel and Syria are archenemies, and Israel alleges that Syria supplies and to some extent controls Hezbollah, which fought an 18-year guerrilla war against Israeli forces in south Lebanon, firing rockets at northern Israel until 2000 and regularly threatening to strike again. Hezbollah has long been financed by Iran, another Israeli enemy.

Israeli officials were looking at several options for dealing with the arms sale, including involving Washington.

David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said, ''The reports in this regard are very disturbing and, as in other cases with strategic implications, we conduct an ongoing dialogue with the administration."

Officials said Israel could decide to allow the deal to go through rather than risk its bilateral relations with Russia.

President Bashar Assad of Syria is due to visit Russia Jan. 24-28.

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