Czechoslovak Leader Tells Israel Prague Will Sell Tanks to Syria

Economic exigencies are forcing Czechoslovakia to sell tanks to Syria, its prime minister, Marian Calfa, explained here Monday.

Calfa, who is in Jerusalem as guest of the World Jewish Congress’ ninth plenary assembly, acknowledged that the weapons, Soviet-designed T-72 tanks, pose a military challenge to Israel.

His admission drew an angry response from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who reminded the Czechoslovak leader that the Soviet bloc had always demonstrated its hostility toward Israel by supplying advanced weaponry to Israel’s enemies.

But Czechoslovakia is no longer part of a Communist bloc and is striving for democracy and a market economy. That in essence is the reason why it must sell its products to all comers, Syria included, if it is to achieve economic viability, explained Calfa, who views world Jewry as a potential source of investments in his country.

“We Czechs would much prefer to lock up the arms factories and convert to peaceful production,” he said.

The United States reportedly has offered to help, while urging Czechoslovakia not to export tanks to Syria and Iran.

The Czechoslovak press, quoting State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, reported last Friday that the United States was prepared to send a team of consultants to Czechoslovakia to help speed up the conversion of its arms industry to civilian production.

In Prague, the daily Lidove Noviny, citing “well-informed sources,” reported Saturday that the Americans distanced themselves from tank sale to Syria but expressed understanding of the economic problems that made it necessary.

The Israeli ambassador in Prague, Joel Sher, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he doubted the tank sale to Syria would materialize.

Here in Jerusalem, Calfa assured Shamir that it is not his country’s intention that Czechoslovak weapons ever be used against Israel. But Czechoslovakia owes money to Syria and can pay off its debt with the tanks, he explained.

Shamir reportedly was not mollified. He also faulted Prague for continuing to have relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, even after the PLO had largely discredited itself by supporting Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

(JTA correspondent Josef Klansky in Prague contributed to this report.)

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