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Kerry visits Oman for arms deal signing, talks on Syria, Mideast

21 May 2013 06:30 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flies to Oman on Tuesday for Raytheon Co's signing of an estimated $2.1 billion arms deal and to consult on Syria and Iran, U.S. officials said.

Oman is expected to sign a letter of intent to purchase a ground-based air defense system that would help protect against cruise missile or drone attacks, a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters aboard Kerry's plane.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the terms were still being negotiated and the final value of the sale could change, adding that it was not clear whether Kerry would attend the signing expected on Tuesday or Wednesday. Raytheon spokesman Jonathan Kasle had no immediate comment.

Raytheon Chief Executive Bill Swanson told an earnings call last month that the company was making "considerable progress" on a number of foreign arms sales, including a deal to sell a ground-based air defense system to Oman.

Raytheon generates more of its revenues overseas than any other large U.S. weapons maker. It has forecast a 20-percent increase in foreign bookings in 2013.

Oman sits opposite Iran on the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 40 percent of the world's sea-borne oil passes, and is a U.S.-allied Gulf Arab State while also maintaining good relations with the Shi'ite-ruled Islamic republic.

Kerry's visit is the first stop on a week-long trip that will take him to Amman for talks on bringing Syria's warring parties to a peace conference and to Jerusalem and Ramallah to discuss reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Both issues are expected to come up when Kerry meets Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the Arab world's longest-serving ruler, on Tuesday, said the officials, who spoke to reporters while Kerry flew to Ireland for refueling before heading to Oman.

"It's basically a chance to do a signals check with an important ally," said a second senior State Department official. "Oman is not a key player on Syria but, as an important player in the Gulf, I think it will be good to hear the sultan's views on the situation in the region writ large."

More than 80,000 people are believed to have died in Syria's civil war, which began with peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule more than two years ago as popular uprisings swept long-time authoritarian rules from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

It has since become an all-out fight between opposition fighters who have Arab and some Western backing and government forces that are supported by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah and that benefit from diplomatic support and arms sales from Russia.

Rebel and government forces engaged in their fiercest fighting this year in the rebel stronghold of Qusair, Syrian activists said, saying about 30 Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and 20 Syrian soldiers and militiamen loyal to Assad have been killed in the clashes.

The reported Hezbollah losses reflect the extent to which the Syrian conflict is turning into a proxy war between Shi'ite Iran and U.S.-aligned Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which back Assad's mostly Sunni foes.

Kerry on Wednesday will meet in Amman with senior officials from mostly Western and Arab states that are backing the Syrian opposition to discuss how to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

The United States and Russia announced two weeks ago that they would try to bring the two sides together - possibly in June in Geneva - for a peace conference that would choose a transitional government.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Eric Beech, Bill Trott and Paul Simao)

(Source : Reuters)

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