Russian foreign minister denies selling helicopters to Syria

Russia
TEHRAN and BEIRUT--Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday denied allegations by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Moscow was sending attack helicopters to the Syrian military.

All of Russia's military contracts with Syria are for air-defense systems, not for any weaponry that can be used in civil conflicts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Tehran after meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi.

Lavrov, who at times appeared agitated, insisted that Russia’s weapons trade with Syria doesn't violate any international laws or export legislation.

"We don’t supply Syria or anyone else with things that are used to fight against peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies that region with such equipment," Lavrov said, according to the Russian-owned RT network.

Washington has said it has only provided "non-lethal" aid, such as communications equipment, to the Syrian opposition.

The comments are the latest in an escalating war of words between Washington and Moscow about Syria, where a 15-month rebellion has threatened  the government of President Bashar Assad, a longtime Russian ally. Since Soviet days, Syria has been a major arms client for Moscow. Russia still maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.

The Obama administration has called on Assad to step down, saying his government has lost legitimacy because of its brutal crackdown on dissent.

Russia says it is not defending Assad, and is indifferent to whether he remains in power, but rejects foreign "interference" in Syria’s affairs and is concerned about the nation’s stability if Assad goes. Both sides say they support United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan’s faltering six-point peace plan for Syria.

But Clinton has charged that Russia’s policies — Moscow has twice led U.N. vetoes of Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s actions — were contributing to what could become a civil war in Syria.

On Tuesday, Clinton again launched a verbal broadside at Russia, asserting in Washington that "there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically." The State Department declined to provide specifics.

In recent days, the U.N. has confirmed Syria’s use of attack helicopters against insurgent forces in the central Syrian province of Homs, an epicenter of the uprising.

On another contentious front, Russia is pushing the idea of a multi-nation meeting on Syria that would include Iran, a close ally of Assad. Washington has rejected the idea of Iran’s participation.

Clinton said the inclusion of Iran in an international session on Syria was a "red line" for the United States. "Iran is not only supporting the Assad regime, but actively mentoring, leading, encouraging, not merely the regular army, but the militias that are springing up, engaging in sectarian conflict," Clinton said Tuesday in Washington.

MORE:

Syria town's residents grow accustomed to violence

U.S.: Russia sending attack helicopters to Syria

A balancing act with Russia

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut

Photo: A Nepalese human rights activist holds a placard during a rally organized by Amnesty International outside the United Nations office in Katmandu, Nepal, on Wednesday. Credit: Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press

 
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