Russia’s Putin, Egypt’s Sisi discuss nuclear deal, Middle East tensions

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CAIRO (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin met Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on Monday for talks over a nuclear power plant and tensions in the Middle East following Washington’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Putin’s visit to Cairo reflects the deepening ties between Russia and Egypt, the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and a strategic U.S. partner in the Middle East because of its control of the Suez Canal.

Putin, who is due to fly to Turkey after Cairo, briefly visited a Russian base in Syria before arriving in Egypt and ordered Russian forces to start withdrawing from Syria after a two-year military campaign.

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During the visit, Egypt and Russia signed an agreement to start work on Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant, state television showed. They were also to discuss the resumption of Russian flights to Egypt as soon as possible, a presidential spokesman told MENA state news agency.

Moscow halted civilian air traffic to Egypt in 2015 after militants bombed a Russian Metrojet flight leaving from the tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 people onboard.

Russian state nuclear company Rosatom said on Monday the Dabaa nuclear station it will build in Egypt will have four reactors and cost up to $21 billion with construction expected to finish in 2028-2029.

Moscow and Cairo signed an initial agreement in 2015 for Russia to build the plant, with Russia extending a loan to Egypt to cover the cost of construction.

The high-level Russian visit comes after the U.S. government in August decided to deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and to delay another $195 million because of its failure to make progress on human rights and democratic norms.

Russia launched a military operation to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, and there are signs Moscow is keen to further expand its military presence in the region.

In November, Russia’s government published a draft agreement between Russia and Egypt allowing both countries to use each other’s air space and air bases for their military planes.

Putin has been steadily building relations with Egypt. On his first visit to Cairo in 2015, he was the first leader of a major power to meet with Sisi after the former Egyptian army commander ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

That prompted Washington to cool relations with Egypt, and the U.S. government suspended some military aid.

Since then the two leaders have increased cooperation, reviving the historical alliance between Egypt and Soviet Union of the 1970s. Cairo had moved closer to the United States when Washington brokered a peace deal with Israel in 1979.

Libya is a particular interest, where Egypt and Russia have both backed Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar who has become one of the most powerful leaders in the North African state since it fell into factional fighting after a 2011 uprising.

Moscow has cultivated close ties with Haftar, who held talks several times with Russian officials and visited Moscow.

U.S. officials also said in March that Russia had deployed special forces in Egypt near the border with Libya, at the Sidi Barrani base. Egyptian sources said another Egyptian base was also in use this year. Moscow denied those claims.

Reporting by Patrick Markey and Maria Tsvetkov; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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