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Russia accuses US of arming Syria rebels

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Russian FM Sergei Lavrov's accusation follows US chargesRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused the US of supplying weapons to Syria's opposition forces, a day after Washington said Moscow was sending to "attack helicopters" to aid Damascus.

Lavrov told a news conference during a brief visit to Iran on Wednesday 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.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that she had information Russia was sending to Syria "attack helicopters... which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically".

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

'Proxy war'

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.

Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, told reporters last month that Moscow believed "it would be wrong to leave the Syrian government without the means for self-defence".

Ali Akbar Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister, said at the same news conference with Lavrov that Tehran and Moscow were "very close" on the Syria 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 US are arming Syria's rebels - termed "terrorists" by Damascus - while US officials claim Iran is giving arms and military advisors to Syria's government.

Some observers fear the conflict, which Herve Ladsous, the UN's chief peacekeeper, says now resembles a civil war, could turn into a struggle between forces helped by outside nations.

On Wednesday, Syria's foreign ministry responded to the remarks made by Ladsous, saying that they represented an unrealistic description of the conflict.

"Talk of civil war in Syria is not consistent with reality ... What is happening in Syria is a war against armed groups that choose terrorism," state news agency SANA quoted a ministry statement as saying.

But one Western diplomat told the AFP news agency, on condition of anonymity, that "there is a real risk of [the situation in Syria] sliding into a proxy war as certain states support the regime or 'the opposition".

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

'Angry crowds'

UN monitors say at least 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the rule 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 government.

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

Meanwhile, there are continued reports of violence in Syria.

According to activists, government forces continue to shell rebel strongholds in the city of Homs and live amateur footage appeared to show rocket attacks destroying a number of buildings in the city's al-Khaldiyeh neighbourhood.

The UN has about 300 observers on the ground charged with monitoring both sides' compliance with a peace plan mediated by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general turned UN envoy.

But the observers have been unable to reach certain parts of the country, including al-Haffa, a besieged coastal town where a crackdown has been feared.

The mission said it was barred from entering al-Haffa by "angry crowds" who threw stones and metal rods at their vehicles.

Most accounts of violence cannot be independently verified, as Syria restricts access for journalists.

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