(AFP) JERUSALEM — The plot thickened on Thursday over a secret trip by Israel’s prime minister, as his office admitted it had misled the public about his whereabouts but did not deny reports he had stolen away to Russia to discuss arms sales to Iran.
“The prime minister was busy with a confidential and classified activity,” Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
“Having had the best intentions, his military attache… acted to defend that activity and did this through an announcement to the media” that said he had spent the day at a security facility in Israel, it said.
But the statement did not deny media reports that Netanyahu had flown to Russia aboard a private plane on Monday to discuss Moscow’s arms sales to arch-foes Syria and Iran, whose controversial nuclear drive has Israel worried.
In Moscow, the Russian authorities said that the Israeli premier had met neither his counterpart Vladimir Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev, but did not explicitly deny the trip itself.
But the respected Kommersant daily on Thursday said a senior Kremlin source confirmed to it that Netanyahu did indeed visit the Russian capital.
The mystery around the prime minister’s day-long disappearance from public view is unfolding alongside another — that the Arctic Sea cargo ship supposedly seized by pirates and later recovered by Russia was secretly carrying S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems bound for Iran.
Russia has denied that the ship was carrying S-300s and Russian investigators have announced that their inspection of the vessel turned up only its official cargo of timber.
The Arctic Sea, a Maltese-flagged vessel with a Russian crew, was hijacked near Sweden in late July before being recovered by the Russian navy in the Atlantic Ocean several weeks later.
The hijacking in a busy European shipping lane, the huge international effort to recover the ship, and the detention of its crewmen after they returned to Russia have all fuelled speculation about a secret cargo.
Officially the ship was carrying a load of timber from Finland to Algeria, but speculation has raged that it was carrying weapons or even nuclear materials.
Israel has for years tried to convince Russia not to sell S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran, which the Jewish state fears Tehran could deploy around its controversial nuclear sites.
The deployment would make it more difficult for Israel to carry out a military strike on them — something the Jewish state has repeatedly refused to rule out amid its drive to stop Tehran’s atomic programme.
Russia reportedly agreed to sell the systems to Tehran several years ago. Following an August 18 visit, Israeli President Shimon Peres said that he had secured a promise from Medvedev that Russia would review its decision.
Widely considered to be the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, Israel suspects Iran of trying to develop an atomic bomb under the guise of a civilian nuclear programme, a charge Tehran denies.