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Lebanon agrees to Russian choppers

March 1, 2010 at 9:25 AM   |   Comments

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 1 (UPI) -- Lebanon has opted for Mi-24 helicopter gunships from Russia rather than going with initial plans to supply its military MiG-29 fighter jets.

The about-face was announced at the end of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's three-day visit to Moscow where he met with senior Russian officials about arms procurement deals as well as the situation in the Middle East.

"The Russian authorities agreed to replace the MIG-29 fighters, initially foreseen in their military aid, with Mi-24 helicopters as the Lebanese army urgently needs this type of aircraft equipped with rockets and sophisticated means of defense," a statement from the president's office said.

Suleiman, the first Lebanese head of state to visit Russia, had talks with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. The leaders signed a bilateral defense cooperation pact which Moscow billed a "significant milestone."

Under the agreement, Lebanese officers and military staff will be afforded Russian training for the Mi-24 helicopters.

In December 2008, Russia revealed designs that it would supply Lebanon with 10 MiG-29 type planes. But during his visit, Suleiman revised the deal, opting for an equal number of the Mi-24 state-of-the-art military helicopters and the advanced missiles they carry.

"The army needs this type of helicopters, especially if they are supplied with missiles," the statement said, without clarifying what may have precipitated Beirut's change in order.

Still, in an interview with a local newspaper, the Lebanese president underscored his country's growing concern with the perceived Israeli military threat.

"Israel is trying with its threats to achieve two things -- escape from international pressure placed on it to proceed in the peace process and create an atmosphere of sectarianism within Lebanon," Suleiman, a former army commander, told Russia Today.

In 2007, the Lebanese military launched an three-month offensive against the al-Qaida-inspired Fatah Islam group inside the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon. The Lebanese army crushed the group, but the victory claimed the lives of 220 militants, 171 soldiers and 47 Palestinian civilians.

French-made Gazelle helicopters were used almost exclusively in staging the Lebanese military's attacks against the militants.

In recent years, however, the United States increased its military aid to Lebanon, hoping that a stronger military could impose the state's authority across the country.

Last year, Washington decided to supply Beirut with battle tanks -- the first since the early 1980s -- after Russia promised to give Lebanon 10 MiG-29 fighter jets.

Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia in hope of swaying Moscow to scrap plans to provide Iran with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.

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