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Hagel touts arms deal on Israel trip

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Hagel touts arms deal on Israel trip
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Tel Aviv: Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel and his Israeli counterpart today hailed a major arms deal as a sign of "ironclad" US support for the Jewish state after talks on Iran's nuclear drive and Syria's war.

The US defence secretary, who has been accused of being too critical of Israel, sought to convey a message of solidarity on his first visit to the region since he took office two months ago.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon in Tel Aviv, Hagel confirmed the two had agreed on a multi-billion dollar weapons deal that will see Israel receiving an impressive array of advanced US missiles and aircraft.

"Today we took another significant step in the US-Israel defence relationship," Hagel said, reiterating Washington's "ironclad pledge" to ensure Israel's military edge in a region rocked by turmoil.

"Minister Yaalon and I agreed that the United States will make available to Israel a set of advanced new military capabilities," including anti-radiation missiles, radars for fighter jets, KC-135 refuelling aircraft, and the V-22 Osprey, which the United States has not released to other countries, he said.

Yaalon admitted Israel had already "acted" to stop advanced weapons from falling into militant hands, in what was seen as implicit confirmation of Israeli involvement in a strike on an arms convoy inside Syria in January.

He said Israel had laid down three "very clear red lines" for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the first of which was "not to allow sophisticated weapons to be delivered or be taken by rogue elements like Hezbollah or other rogue elements."

"When they crossed this red line, we acted," he said, in what was widely understood to be the January 30 strike which hit what a US official said were surface-to-air missiles near Damascus that Israel suspected were en route to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

The second red line was maintaining security along the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line on the occupied Golan Heights, and the third was the transfer of chemical weapons into the hands of militants, which "has not been tested yet," Yaalon said.

European diplomats have alleged the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against rebels, and Hagel said Washington was investigating the accounts.

"Currently our intelligence agencies are assessing what happened and what did not happen," he said.

The White House has warned that use of chemical agents in the Syrian civil war would constitute a "game changer" but Hagel refused to be drawn on any possible US response.

"I'm not going to discuss contingency options," he said.

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