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Israel's Lieberman says Iranian warships headed for Suez Canal in 'provocation'

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JERUSALEM - Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that Iran was about to send two warships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, calling it a "provocation."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed in a statement that Israel was following the ships' movements, but an aide said they were no cause for alarm.

Lieberman, who is known for his blunt language, spoke in a closed meeting with visiting members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"Tonight, two Iranian warships are to pass through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean and reach Syria, something that has not happened for many years," Lieberman said, according to excerpts of his remarks provided by his office. "This is a provocation that proves that the self-confidence and audacity of the Iranians are increasing from day to day."

"The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever," Lieberman added.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who spoke later to the gathering, made no mention of the reported Iranian movements.

Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency reported Jan. 26 that Iranian navy cadets were going on a year-long training mission and would be traveling through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean. It said they were training to defend Iranian ships against the threat of Somali pirates.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed that the Iranian ships had entered the area of the canal, but would not comment on whether their presence was considered provocative. "There are two ships in the Red Sea," he said. "What their intention is, what their destination is, I can't say."

Israeli naval vessels have on occasion moved through the Suez Canal under the terms of the peace treaty signed with Egypt in 1979.

The Israeli government views Iran as an existential threat because of its nuclear program, its calls to destroy Israel and its support for the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Islamist Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip.

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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