Putin endorses Egypt’s military chief in presidential elections

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has wished Egypt’s military chief victory in the nation’s presidential vote, even though he has yet to announce his bid.

The move is seen as a strong endorsement signalling Moscow’s desire to expand its ties with a key US ally in the Middle East.

Without naming the United States, the Kremlin used Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s visit to Moscow criticise what it regards as US interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Russia’s ties with the US have been badly strained by disputes ranging from Syria’s civil war, to missile defence plans in Europe, to Moscow’s human rights record.

Mr Putin’s public endorsement of Field Marshal el-Sissi is unlikely to cause a stir in Egypt, where an announcement that he is running in the election is a matter of when, not if.

“I know that you have made a decision to run for president,” Mr Putin said at the start of his meeting with the military chief. “That’s a very responsible decision: to undertake such a mission for the fate of the Egyptian people. On my own part, and on behalf of the Russian people, I wish you success.”

Field Marshal El-Sissi didn’t mention his presidential ambitions in brief opening remarks, but emphasised his focus on ensuring security, saying that the country’s military is capable of providing it.

The 59-year old, who rose to prominence after the ousting of elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, is popular among a large segment of Egyptians and is widely expected to announce a candidacy for presidential elections that are likely due in late April.

Mr Putin’s statement could be a reflection of widespread predictions in Egypt that the career infantry officer will win a landslide in the upcoming presidential vote. It also reflected the Russian leader’s intention to forge close relations with Egypt under the Field Marshal.

Mr Putin is known to have been less than warm toward Mr Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood –Egypt’s oldest and most powerful Islamist group – has been a guidance force for Islamic groups across much of the world in the last 50 years or more.

Anlaysts sayd Field Marchal el-Sissi wanted to send a signal to Washington, while Mr Putin was eager to acquire a new ally in the Middle East.

Last month, the US Congress approved a spending bill that would restore 1.5 billion dollars (£900 million) in aid to Egypt, but only on the condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.

Field Marshal El-Sissi’s visit to Moscow, his first trip abroad since Mr Morsi’s ousting, comes amid reports of a two billion dollars (£1.2bn) arms deal with Russia to be funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is part of Egypt’s shift to reduce reliance on the US.

Russia has presented a rival resolution to Britain and other United Nations Security Council powers after threatening to veto a Western and Arab-backed measure on sanctions against Syria.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin gave the text to its fellow veto-wielding permanent members of the council – the United States, Britain, France and China – at a meeting on Wednesday night, a UN diplomat said. The Russian draft includes some parts of the Western and Arab motion.

Negotiations were expected to see if the drafts can be merged into a compromise text.

Western diplomats say their goal is to win agreement from all 15 council members on a resolution demanding immediate and unrestricted access to all areas of Syria to deliver vital humanitarian aid.

But Mr Churkin dismissed the Western and Arab text, which puts most of the blame for the humanitarian crisis on the Syrian government, as “political”.

It demands that civilians be allowed to leave and calls on Syrian authorities to allow humanitarian access to people in need across conflict lines and across borders from neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Iraq.

If the resolution’s demands are not met within 15 days, the draft expresses the Security Council’s intention to impose non-military sanctions.

Russia and China, which supports the Syrian government, have blocked three previous Western-backed resolutions that would have pressured President Bashar Assad to end the now three-year-old civil war.

The divided Security Council came together in October to approve a presidential statement appealing for immediate access to all areas of Syria to deliver aid. But the supporters want a legally-binding resolution.

Russia has come under intense pressure, especially from US president Barack Obama, over its opposition.

Mr Obama said on Tuesday that US secretary of state John Kerry and others “delivered a very direct message” pressuring the Russians to drop their opposition.

“It is not just the Syrians that are responsible” for the plight of civilians but “the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution,” he said.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said yesterday that as violence intensified in Syria and the situation on the ground became more complicated “people are becoming more desperate”.

“There are reports and allegations of systematic targeting of communities with specific religious affiliations,” she said.

She told a Security Council meeting on protection of civilians that “there are 250,000 people in areas of the country which are besieged”.

“They cannot leave and we cannot get aid in,” said Baroness Amos, who will brief the council again today.

She said the desperately-needed humanitarian pause in a besieged rebel-held area of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, led to the evacuation of more than 1,000 civilians and the delivery of some fo