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    Russia must restore its permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean to ensure the protection of its strategic interests in the region, the Navy commander said Friday.

    (Adds Dygalo's statement in paras. 8-9)

    SEVASTOPOL, August 3 (RIA Novosti) - Russia must restore its permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean to ensure the protection of its strategic interests in the region, the Navy commander said Friday.

    "The Mediterranean is an important theater of operations for the Russian Black Sea Fleet," Admiral Vladimir Masorin said, adding that the fleet's zone of control extended through the Black and Mediterranean seas toward the Atlantic Ocean.

    "We must restore a permanent presence of the Russian Navy in this region," the Navy commander said.

    He called for closer cooperation with Ukraine, where the bulk of the Black Sea Fleet is currently based, and Turkey, which is an important regional leader.

    Russia is part of the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (Blackseafor), which also includes Turkey, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Georgia.

    Formally established on Turkey's initiative in 2001, Blackseafor conducts search and rescue operations, and environmental monitoring, and organizes goodwill visits among Black Sea countries.

    In addition, Russia actively participates in the NATO-led antiterrorism operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean. The country will send a frigate in September 2007 to join the NATO naval task force in the Eastern Mediterranean, the admiral said.

    Igor Dygalo, aide to the Navy commander, said commenting on Masorin's words, that Russia has no future plans to create groups or units of combat ships in the Mediterranean Sea like during the Cold War.

    He added that the regular presence of Russian ships and submarines from the North, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleets in the Mediterranean Sea is "intended to outline Russia's foreign policy interests."

    Masorin said the presence of the Russian Navy in the region is crucial for the protection of energy supply routes via the Blue Stream gas pipeline and the proposed Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline.

    Addressing the controversial issue of the Black Sea Fleet's base in Sevastopol in Ukraine, the Navy commander said Moscow and Kiev must respect the fundamental agreements on the base lease without any revisions.

    Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement in 1997 stipulating that the Black Sea Fleet's main base in Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula, be leased to Russia for 20 years, with the possibility of extending the term.

    The annual rent of about $100 million is deducted from Ukraine's debt for Russian energy supplies. In addition to the main base, the Black Sea Fleet maintains two airfields and a ship re-supply facility on the Crimean Peninsula.

    He also said Ukraine should not worry about Russia's plans to reinforce its Black Sea Fleet, but should rather look for ways to expand naval cooperation with Moscow.

    "The Russian and Ukrainian Navies could successfully cooperate in combat training, naval exercises and international operations," Masorin said.

    As an alternative to the Sevastopol base, which the Black Sea Fleet has to abandon by 2017, Russia has started construction of a naval base in the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

    "Over 40 billion rubles [over $1.5 billion] have been allocated to the construction of a Black Sea Fleet base in Novorossiisk before 2020 under a federal target program," Admiral Vladimir Masorin said.

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