HAIFA, Israel (AP) — A British warship on Tuesday conducted a joint exercise with the Israeli navy before docking in the port of Haifa for a visit that comes at a time of heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.
Both countries described the visit by the HMS Bulwark as routine and a reflection of deepening security ties between the two nations. It is the first British warship to dock in Haifa since 2009.
But its arrival comes weeks after Russia's deployment of its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to the region, off the coast of Syria. Russia has backed the Syrian government in its civil war, and the Russian ship has been used as a base for airstrikes on rebel targets.
"The eastern Mediterranean is a pretty dangerous place right now, but that's we are paid to do," said Capt. James Parkin, the ship's commander. "Of course we are in a very high level of preparedness."
David Quarrey, Britain's ambassador to Israel, said the ship has been deployed to the region for several months and was stopping in Haifa for a quick break before heading home.
"There are many shared challenges that the U.K. and Israel face, and unfortunately many of them come from the region," he said.
An Israeli navy official, speaking anonymously under military guidelines, said Israel has seen an increase in visits by allies over the past two years.
"It gives us opportunities to cooperate and train with navies that we usually don't have the opportunity to train with," he said. "The area of the east Mediterranean has become very crowded in light of the vast presence of the Russians and the situation in Syria. And Israel presents a safe port for them."
While Western countries have grown alarmed by Russia's increased presence in the region, Israel has had a delicate relationship with Moscow. Israel is bitter enemies with both Syria and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Syrian forces. But Israel has maintained good communications with the Russians to avoid any clashes between the countries' air forces in the skies over Syria. Israel is believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in Syria.
Charles Heyman, a former British military officer who edits "The Armed Forces of the United Kingdom" handbook, said the Bulwark's visit was a "political signal" — reflecting close military and diplomatic ties with Israel.
But he said he did not think the message was aimed at the Russians. "The Russians have known about this deployment for a long time," he said.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report.