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Monday, August 11, 2008

Russia angered by Israeli drone sale to Georgia

TEL AVIV — Israel has acknowledged the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles and other Israeli security support to Georgia which has prompted complaints and threats from Moscow.

Officials said the Defense Ministry approved the sale of several tactical UAV systems to Georgia in 2007, Middle East Newsline reported. They said Georgia has used the unidentified UAVs for border reconnaissance missions.

Georgia has credited Israeli military assistance after claiming the destruction of at least 11 Russian combat aircraft and 50 main battle tanks.

"Israel should be proud of its military, which trained Georgian soldiers," Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobshvili told Israel Army radio on Aug 10.

"We killed 60 Russian soldiers just yesterday. The Russians have lost more than 50 tanks, and we have shot down 11 of their planes. They have sustained enormous damage in terms of manpower."

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Russia has complained of the Israeli UAV sale to Georgia. In May 2008, the Russian Army shot down an Israeli UAV along the Georgian border. The UAV was not identified.

The Russian demand for Israel to stop military sales came amid the intensification of fighting with Georgia and carried with it the implicit threat of increased aid for Israel's enemies.

Israel has countered with complaints about Russia's military exports to Iran and Syria. Moscow, like Israel, has responded by insisting it sells only defensive systems.

Meanwhile, Israel has been divided over whether to continue weapons sales to Georgia, Middle East Newsline reported.

Officials said the debate pits the Defense Ministry against the Foreign Ministry. They said the Foreign Ministry has advocated a suspension of all weapons sales and support services to Georgia while the Defense Ministry sought to continue exports.

"The question is whether there should be a temporary suspension of arms exports to Georgia during the war with Russia," an official said.

In addition to UAVs and other defensive systems, industry sources said Israeli firms have also sold rockets as well as night-vision systems to Tbilisi.

On Aug. 10, the Israeli Defense Ministry, which has overseen an estimated $200 million in military exports to Georgia, convened senior staffers to review the Foreign Ministry recommendation. Officials said the ministry decided to continue to approve exports for non-lethal systems for military and security applications in Georgia.

"The Defense Ministry has been conducting a very wise policy," Amos Gilad, director of the Defense Ministry's political-military bureau, said. "It has taken all factors into account. Defensive systems have been sent, and they have not upset the strategic balance."

Moscow has also asserted that Israeli trainers were advising the Georgian military on how to shoot down Russian combat aircraft and disable main battle tanks.

In December 2007, Israel decided to end the sale of offensive military systems to Georgia, but did not cancel any contracts. Officials said Israel came under pressure from Russia, who warned that such sales would be deemed a hostile act. France and the United States have been leading arms exporters to Georgia.

Still, Russia has pressed Israel for a complete military embargo on Georgia. Officials said the Israeli Foreign Ministry was concerned that Moscow could retaliate by selling advanced weapons to Iran and Syria.

"The Foreign Ministry, and this includes the minister, does not want to give Russia a pretext for selling advanced systems to Iran and Syria," the official said.

For its part, Israel has warned Russia not to export the S-300PMU-2 air and missile defense system to Teheran. Western intelligence sources said S-300 components have already arrived in Iran and were expected to be assembled into operating systems in early 2009.

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