JERUSALEM, April 23: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin moved on Friday to calm Israeli fears over the sale of Russian short-range missiles to Syria, saying they posed no danger to Israel. Mr Putin also tried to answer Israel’s objections to Iran’s nuclear program, saying that Moscow would not assist Tehran in any military-related programme and would cooperate “solely in civil nuclear development”.

“We work solely in the sphere of civil nuclear, in the nuclear energy sector (with Iran),” Mr Putin said in an interview with an Israeli television network days before his first visit to the Jewish state.

Mr Putin confirmed Moscow would push ahead with the missile sale to Damascus, despite Israeli fears that the system could fall into the hands of “terrorist organizations”.

“With respect to the sale which was signed with Syria and which will be finalized, it involves short-range air defence systems ... (which) can destroy air targets at close range,” Mr Putin said.

“They are systems that are mounted on vehicles and they cannot be secretly passed on to terrorist organisations,” he added, saying Russian military officials would be able to carry out checks on the missile sites.

Mr Putin, who is due to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, stressed that Russia was acting responsibly and that the sale would not change the balance of power in the region.

Israeli officials refused to comment on the interview, which was broadcast a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reiterated his belief the sale of the system was a “threat to the security of Israel”.

The Russian leader will hold two days of top-level talks with Mr Sharon and other senior Israeli officials before heading to the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 29 to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

On Thursday, a senior Israeli official said Mr Sharon would press the Russian leader not to go through with the sale.

“There is no doubt that Sharon will push Putin to stop the sale of weapons to Syria,” he said. “We are completely against the sale of any weapons to Syria.”

Asked about Mr Sharon’s chances of persuading the Russian president, he said Israel would continue its efforts until the last minute. “It’s not over yet — the sale still hasn’t gone through,” he said.

But he stressed there was “no crisis” between Israel and Russia, saying the issue would not overshadow the summit, or have any impact on the strong economic, trade and cultural ties between the two countries.

—AFP

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