AMMAN The United States will deploy Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and F-16 fighter jets to Syria's neighbour Jordan this month, Jordan said on Tuesday, drawing swift condemnation from Moscow which accused the West of sending weapons to fuel Syria's civil war.
Jordan said the planes and missiles will be sent as part of an annual exercise to begin in the last week of June. Military sources said the exercises would involve armies from at least 18 countries with more than 15,000 troops.
"These annual exercises will increase the preparedness of the Jordanian army. This year we are in need of more advanced weapons," Jordan's Minister of Information Mohammad al-Momani told Reuters.
There was no official statement suggesting the Patriots or the fighters would be withdrawn when the exercises are over.
Jordan is a U.S. ally in the region and one of the Arab countries that backs the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting insurgents in a two-year-old civil war that has killed 80,000 people.
The deployment of Patriot missiles is particularly controversial for Russia, Assad's main global ally, which believes the missiles could be used by the United States and its allies to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, heralding the first direct Western military intervention.
"We have more than once stated our opinion on this - foreign weapons are being pumped into an explosive region," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
"This is happening very close to Syria, where for more than two years the flames are burning of a devastating conflict that Russia and its American partners are trying to stop by proposing to hold an international peace conference as soon as possible."
Moscow complained vociferously last year when the United States, Germany and the Netherlands deployed Patriots on Syria's northern border in Turkey, a NATO ally. NATO said the Patriots were sent there as a precaution in case missiles were fired over the border from Syria.
Moscow said that decision was a factor in its decision to go ahead with plans to send its own anti-aircraft system, the S-300, to Assad's government.
The Russian system has not yet been deployed but Moscow said in recent weeks it would fulfil the delivery contract.
Assad's air power is one of his main advantages against the rebels, who are relatively lightly armed with weapons they receive from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The United States and Russia have jointly called for a peace conference on Syria later this month, the first attempt in a year by the powers supporting the opposing sides in the civil war to find a diplomatic solution.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Heavens)