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Israeli official says Netanyahu to visit Russia next week for Syria talks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit Russia next week for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on expanding Russia’s military presence in Syria, Israeli officials said on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (not pictured above) during a joint news conference in Jerusalem on September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

“The prime minister will describe the threat to Israel posed by the flow of more advanced weapons to the Syrian arena and the transfer of lethal weapons to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups,” the official said.

Moscow is under international pressure to explain its actions in Syria. The Kremlin has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s four-year civil war.

The Kremlin confirmed the visit, with Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling Russian media that Netanyahu will visit Moscow on Sept. 21.

“On Monday, we will have a short working visit and talks with Vladimir Putin,” Ria Novosti quoted Peskov as saying.

On Monday, two U.S. officials said Russia had deployed about half a dozen tanks at an airfield in a Syrian military staging center, with Moscow’s intentions for the latest deployment of heavy equipment unclear.

Western officials and Russian sources said last week that Russia was sending an advanced anti-aircraft missile system to Syria in support of Assad.

Western officials say the SA-22 system will be operated by the Russian military. A U.S. official who confirmed the information said the system may be part of Russia’s efforts to strengthen defenses at an airport near Latakia, an Assad stronghold.

Even if the Russians operate the missiles and keep them out of the hands of the Syrian army, the arrival of such an advanced air defense system could unnerve Israel, which in the past has bombed advanced weapons suspected of being handed over to Assad’s Lebanese guerrilla allies , Hezbollah.

Israeli officials said last week they were in contact with Moscow amid fears of an unexpected clash with Russian reinforcements in Syria. But Israel has also made clear that it will continue its policy of preventing advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah.

The United States is using Syrian airspace to lead airstrikes against the Islamic State. Russia’s greater presence increases the likelihood that Cold War superpower foes will meet on the battlefield.

Russia said it would continue to supply Syria with military supplies and said aid to the Syrian army complies with international law.

The Syrian civil war has killed an estimated 250,000 people and caused nearly half of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million to flee, with thousands trying to reach Europe.

Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Lydia Kelly in Moscow; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus McSwan

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