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Russia accuses US of arming Syria rebels

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States today of supplying weapons to Syria's rebels.

Lavrov's accusation followed a charge by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that she had information Russia was sending to Syria "attack helicopters ... which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

Lavrov told a news conference during a brief visit to Iran that Russia was supplying "anti-air defence systems" to Damascus in a deal that "in no way violates international laws."

"That contrasts with what the United States is doing with the opposition, which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government," he said, in remarks translated from Russian into Farsi by an official interpreter.

It was the first time Moscow has directly pointed the finger at Washington. Previously, it had said unidentified "foreign powers" were arming the opposition.

Asked in Tehran about the helicopter allegation, Lavrov said only that Moscow was giving Damascus "conventional weapons" related to air defence and asserted that the deal complied with international law.

"We do not supply to Syria or anywhere else things that are used to fight peaceful civilians," he said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said last month that Moscow believed "it would be wrong to leave the Syrian government without the means for self-defence."

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at the same news conference with Lavrov that Tehran and Moscow were "very close" on the Syrian issue.

Western and Arab nations, he said, "are sending weapons to Syria and forces to Syria, and are not allowing the reforms promised by the Syrian president to be applied."

Reports in Iran allege that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States are arming Syria's rebels -- termed "terrorists" by Damascus -- while US officials claim Iran is giving arms and military advisors to Syria's regime.

Some observers fear the conflict, which the UN's chief peacekeeper agrees said is a civil war, could blow up into a struggle between forces helped by outside nations.

"There is a real risk of it sliding into a proxy war as certain states support the regime or 'the opposition'," one Western diplomat told AFP, speaking on condition on anonymity.

"The conflict in Syria certainly appears to be getting more brutal -- and not just on one side," the diplomat warned.

Monitors say more than 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia came under fierce criticism from Western and Arab countries for vetoing two UN Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Assad for his use of force.

Since then, it has sought to distance itself from Assad while continuing to support his regime. "We do not support any individual or government, we support the people of Syria," Lavrov said.

Moscow is now trying to organise an international conference on Syria that would include several nations with influence over the conflict, including Iran. The United States, Britain and France, though, object to Iran taking part.

"We want the support of all the players," Lavrov said.

"All sides in the conflict need to stop operations ... Any player with leverage should apply pressure to stop the violence and facilitate negotiations," he said.

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