Syrian envoy denies Russia sending helicopters

MOSCOW Thu Jun 14, 2012 2:04pm BST

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria's ambassador to Moscow said on Thursday that Russia is not supplying Syria's government with attack helicopters, the most specific denial yet from Moscow or Damascus of remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"Russia is not delivering any helicopters to Syria," Ambassador Riad Haddad told Reuters, speaking two days after Clinton said the United States had information that attack helicopters were on the way from Russia to Syria.

Russia has faced increasing Western criticism over arms supplies to Syria, where the United Nations says government forces have killed more than 10,000 people in bloodshed that began with a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in March 2011.

Russia says it is fulfilling existing contracts for supplies of air defence systems, for use against external attacks, and is not sending Syria weapons that could be used in the internal conflict. Haddad echoed those statements, telling a news conference, "These are defensive weapons."

Clinton said on Tuesday that the United States was "concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically".

A source close to Russia's weapons export monopoly Rosoboronexport said on Wednesday there have been no recent contracts between Russia and Syria for new attack helicopters to Damascus, but that Clinton may have been referring to military helicopters which had been repaired in Russia.

The source said that at least nine Mi-25 attack helicopters which had been repaired in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad were sent back to Russia in 2009 for repairs and that the shipment could be returning to Damascus now.

He also referred to another batch of helicopters - three Mi-25s and two multipurpose KA-28 helicopters - which the source said were repaired by Aviaremont, which is owned by Russia's Defence Ministry, and are believed to have been sent to Syria.

Russia and China have protected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by vetoing two Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions censuring his government for the violence, one of which would have backed a call for his exit from power.

Moscow has traditionally been one of Syria's top suppliers of weapons, providing nearly $960 million worth of jet fighter upgrades and anti-ship missile systems in 2011.

President Vladimir Putin, who is to meet U.S. President Barack Obama next week, has said that Russia does not provide Syria with weapons that could be used in a civil conflict.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Russia is sending only air defence systems and decided early in the conflict not to deliver guns.

Russia, the world's second largest arms exporter, delivered three different missile systems - including Bastion anti-ship missile units and another anti-aircraft missile system - to Syria last year.

At least two boats carrying Russian weapons have reportedly travelled to Syria since the beginning of the year, though possibly not on behalf of state arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Thomas Grove; Editing by Steve Gutterman, Louise Ireland and Roger Atwood)

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