U.S. accuses Russia of sending helicopters to Damascus; U.N. calls conflict civil war

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of lying about its arms shipments to Syria. (Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia Tuesday of sending attack helicopters to the regime in Damascus, saying Moscow is lying about its arms shipments, as a top U.N. official said Syria is now at civil war.

“We are 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,” Clinton told a think-tank discussion in Washington.

“There’s no doubt that the onslaught continues, the use of heavy artillery and the like. We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” she told the discussion at the Brookings Institution.

“They have from time to time said that we shouldn’t worry, that everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”

Clinton pointed out that U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was now trying to put together a contact group to work on a road map for a political transition that would see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step aside.

The group would “include Russia,” Clinton said, adding the United States was in agreement with that.

“Russia has increasingly said that it was not defending Assad, but it worried about what came after Assad and that it would work on political transition,” Clinton said.

“But there are always a lot of caveats that they then interpose,” she said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to give more detail on Clinton’s charges or to specify the source of her information.

But Nuland said that Clinton was referring to fresh helicopters and not existing choppers in the fleet of Syria, a longstanding ally of Moscow.

“She’s concerned about helicopters on the way. That’s a different matter than whether there are already Soviet-made helicopters or Russian-made helicopters that are being used by the regime,” Nuland told reporters.

“U.S. encouraging massacres”

Earlier on Tuesday, Syria accused Washington of encouraging more massacres in the strife-torn country and of meddling in its internal affairs.

“The U.S. administration is pushing forth with its flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs and its backing of armed terrorist groups,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“U.S. statements distort the truth and what is happening on the ground while encouraging armed terrorist groups to carry out more massacres... not only in al-Haffeh but throughout the country,” it added.

The statement came as Pro-Syrian regime villagers prevented United Nations observers from reaching the town of al-Haffeh where there are fears that a new massacre might be carried out, a watchdog said.

“Residents of the pro-regime village of As-Sheer blocked the road and prevented the U.N. observer team from reaching al-Haffeh,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Civil war

Meanwhile when asked whether he believed Syria is in a civil war, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told AFP and one other reporter: “Yes I think we can say that.

“Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control.”

“I think there is a massive increase in the level of violence, so massive indeed that in a way it indicates some change of nature” in the conflict, added Ladsous.

“Now we have confirmed reports of not only of the use of tanks and artillery but also attack helicopters,” Ladsous said.

“This is becoming large scale because the opposition also resists.”

The undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations is the most senior U.N. official to indicate he believes there is a civil war. U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon said last week that he believed it was “imminent”.

Ladsous also gave details on the firing against U.N. observers near Al-Haffeh on Tuesday.

He said one military observer came close to being hit by a bullet. “We thought he was injured but in fact the bullet did not enter him but hit his boot.”

“There were many impacts that hit the car, so it was deliberate,” he added.

Separately, a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the crowd that surrounded the U.N. convoy was carrying government flags and that at least 20 bullets hit the car carrying the observers.

The almost 300 unarmed observers in the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) face a “grave security risk” because incidents such as that in Al-Haffeh have become more frequent, Ladsous said.

UNSMIS is “a peacekeeping force when there is definitely no peace to observe, that summarizes the situation,” he declared.

It is “an observer mission which cannot observe a ceasefire because there is no ceasefire, that is the best way we can put it. So we are keeping the situation under close review.”

With the UNSMIS mandate due to end on July 20, the United Nations and U.N. Security Council are studying “various options” on the mission’s future, Ladsous said. A central element would be to see whether a political dialogue can be started.

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