28/06/2009 11:46 BAKU, June 28 (AFP)
Israel’s Peres on landmark visit to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan
Israeli President Shimon Peres arrived in Baku on Sunday to begin a landmark visit to the former Soviet states of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan aimed at advancing strategic and economic ties.
During his four-day state visit to the two predominantly Muslim countries, Peres will hold talks with Azerbaijani and Kazakh leaders.
He also plans to address hundreds of representatives from Muslim and Arab countries at an interfaith conference in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Peres’s office said.
Peres was greeted by an honour guard after touching down at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport, Azerbaijani state news agency Azertaj reported.
The 85-year-old president is travelling with a delegation of more than 60 representatives of Israeli government ministries and private companies seeking to tighten trade and economic ties with the two Caspian Sea states.
"The president’s visit is aimed at strengthening and expanding Israel’s strategic, diplomatic and economic ties with the two Muslim states that sit on the crossroads between Russia, China and Iran," his office said in a statement.
Israel and Azerbaijan share close economic ties, with trade turnover between the two countries reaching 180 million dollars (128 million euros) in the first quarter of 2009, the Israeli ambassador to Baku, Arthur Lenk, told local media before the visit.
Azerbaijani media reported that Israel, which imports 20 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan, will be seeking to boost energy cooperation during the visit.
Baku will be looking to increase cooperation in various high-tech fields and in importing Israeli agricultural products, media reported.
Azerbaijan, which is locked in a long-standing conflict with neighbouring Armenia, may also be interested in buying more Israeli arms after several previous multimillion-dollar weapons deals.
Israel shares tight economic and military ties with Kazakhstan after Astana asked the Jewish state to help it modernise its military and produce weapons.
Peres’s visit has reportedly raised concerns in Azerbaijan’s neighbour Iran, and on Saturday police briefly detained 19 members of the pro-Iranian Azerbaijani Islamic Party for protesting against the visit outside the foreign ministry in Baku.
It also comes as four Azerbaijanis and two Lebanese are on trial in Baku facing charges of plotting to blow up the Israeli embassy in Baku last year.
Azerbaijani authorities allege the suspects were connected with Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Al-Qaeda network.