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LEBANON: Russia to provide free fighter jets to Beirut

December 17, 2008 |  8:00 am

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If the United States is not willing to deliver the heavy weapons that Lebanon seeks, no problem.

Russia will do so.

In a move sure to provoke the U.S. and its ally Israel, Russia will give Lebanon 10 Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets as a donation and commit to supply the teetering Arab democracy abutting Israel's northern border with more war machines, an official told reporters today, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

"As a trend toward stabilization of the situation has become visible, Lebanon has decided to intensify  military-technological cooperation" with Russia, said Mikhail Dmitriyev, the director of Russia's Federal Service for Military Technological Cooperation.

Dmitriyev also said Russia could soon provide "ground equipment," such as tanks and artillery, to Lebanon.

"We consider the Lebanese army as a key element of political stability within this country and are ready to provide it with arms," he said.

Lebanon has descended frequently into war during the last four decades. It's American-funded army must contend with the powerful armed forces of the Shiite political organization Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian backed militia committed to fighting Israel.

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Lebanon's defense minister, Elias Murr (above right), announced a possible deal yesterday after meeting with Russian officials, according to Russia’s news agency, Novosti.

The Russian Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, for his part, said that the jets would provide “a fresh impetus to military cooperation between the two countries," the agency reported.

The Russian aircraft were designed to counter the US-made F-16 jets.

But at least one Lebanese official said the deal was impractical. According to a senior Lebanese military official, the Russian offer seems “implausible” and surpasses the capacity of the Lebanese army.

“It is an unnaturally big step for the Lebanese army,” he told the Los Angeles Times on condition of anonymity, adding that Lebanon does not have the proper infrastructure, nor the trained personnel to make use of the fighter jets.

“Lebanon was totally not expecting the Russians to make this offer. The army requested anti-aircraft rockets, armored personnel carriers and some tanks but not aircraft,” he said.

The Lebanese armed forces have reportedly asked Moscow for a list of weapons. The Russians said they would decide on the request in “the near future.”

Lebanon’s army is poorly equipped with few heavy and medium-sized weapons. Its air force currently comprises some combat helicopters and two old “Hanker Hunter” jets that were only recently refurbished.

The army official said that the news about the Russian jets boils down to a “media coup,” with Moscow conveying a message to the U.S. that it plans on expanding its influence in the Middle East.

Despite the U.S. claims about its increased military support to Lebanon, experts say that the aid provided by Washington is relatively minimal and has so far only amounted to ammunition, communication devices and military vehicles.

U.S. officials have recently said that they would not help Lebanon’s army in a way that would put Israel’s security in danger.

The Lebanese media said that the Russian offer came as a “big surprise.” Some local newspapers compared the “generous” Russian military support to the paltry U.S. aid.

The Lebanese daily, Addiyar, said that the Russians offered Lebanon “many sophisticated weapons” including T-90 tanks that are, according to the newspaper, far more advanced than the M-60 combat vehicles expected to be provided by Washington.

But other Lebanese newspapers raised doubts about the offer. The left-leaning Assafir daily asked whether Lebanon would have to give guarantees not to fly the jets against Israel and only use them in “the internal fight against terrorism."

-- Raed Rafei and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: At top, a Dutch MiG-29 flying at a 2005 trade show. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. At bottom, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, left, and Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr toast during a meeting in Moscow's Defense Ministry on Tuesday.

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