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Russian Navy planning greater presence in Syria

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Reuters / August 28, 2008
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DAMASCUS - The Russian Navy will make more use of Syrian ports as part of increased military presence in the Mediterranean, a Russian diplomat said yesterday.

The announcement comes as tensions rise between Moscow and the West over Russia's role in Georgia. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria 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 President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia today.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week Russia was prepared to sell Syria more arms as long as this does not disturb the "regional balance of power."

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.

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