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Thursday, December 18, 2008

White House shocked by Lebanon fighter jet deal with Russia

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has been dismayed by the efforts of the Lebanese government to seek weapons from Iran and Russia. Officials said the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora was urged by Washington not to acquire offensive combat platforms that could be seized by the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah.

Officials said the State Department has contacted the Lebanese Foreign Ministry for clarification of Lebanon's decision to procure the MiG-29 fighter-jet from Moscow, Middle East Newsline reported. They said the procurement would escalate regional tension, particularly with Lebanon's southern neighbor, Israel.

In Moscow, Russia announced plans to supply 10 surplus MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter-jets to Lebanon. The Russian Federal Military Cooperation Service said the planes would be modernized and supplied free of charge.

"Joint efforts with our Lebanese colleagues are now underway that deal with the purchase of Russian armored vehicles, artillery and other military hardware, as well as other types of armaments," Mikhail Dmitriyev, director of the Russian agency, said. "This means assistance in budgetary funds."

"This is very early yet [for a U.S. response]," Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Christopher Straub, responsible for the Middle East, said.

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The U.S. administration has sent Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Hale to discuss Lebanon's military and security requirements as well as Beirut's arms negotiations with Moscow and Teheran. Hale, responsible for the Middle East and expected to arrive in Beirut on Dec. 19, said Hizbullah has been engaged in a military buildup in Lebanon.

"The rearmament of Hizbullah through Syria and Iran may re-incite confrontation with Israel, which could destroy Lebanon once again," Hale told the London-based Al Hayat daily.

Officials said Washington has refused to sell offensive combat platforms to Lebanon. They said the administration's position hardened in wake of the Hizbullah attack on the Siniora government in May 2008.

"We are telling the Lebanese that they could work with us and build their military and security forces in a way that could bolster democracy and sovereignty," a U.S. official, who did not want to be named, said, "or they could turn to countries that will use any arms deals to gain control of the government."

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