Russia rebuffs criticism over Syria arms shipments

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addresses a joint press conference in Warsaw, Poland on 10 May 2013. (Photo: AFP - Wojtek Radwanski)

Published Friday, May 17, 2013

Russia's foreign minister on Friday brushed off Western criticism of Moscow for supplying weapons to Syria’s government.

"I do not understand why the media is trying to create a sensation out of this," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "We have not hidden that we supply weapons to Syria under signed contracts, without violating any international agreements, or our own legislation."

Lavrov said during a joint press appearance in Sochi with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Russia only supplied defense weapons that could not alter the outcome of the 26-month conflict between the army and the opposition.

"We are first and foremost supplying defense weapons related to air defense," Lavrov said in televised comments.

"This does not in any way alter the balance of forces in this region or give any advantage in the fight against the opposition," he stressed.

The comments come as the United States on Thursday blacklisted four Syrian government ministers, an airline and a television station it said helped the government in its two-year crackdown on opposition forces.

The same day, the US State Department labeled as a terrorist Mohammad al-Golani, for being the leader of the al-Nusra Front. The group is one of the most effective forces fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri last month.

The US Treasury Department said the government-owned airline, Syrian Arab Airlines, helped Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards ship illegal cargo – including rockets, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition – to aid the Syrian government.

The United States also accused the privately held Al-Dunya Television of assisting government propaganda by airing forced confessions. Dunya also helped the government disseminate fake weapons busts and arrest people it had interviewed, according to Treasury.

Treasury also blacklisted, or designated, four Syrian officials: the ministers of defense, health, industry, and justice, as part of its broader steps to stymie the government's activities.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) meanwhile on Friday said more than 1.5 million people have fled Syria as conditions there deteriorate rapidly.

"The fact that more than 1.5 million have registered or have appointments with UNHCR sadly means the actual number is much higher," UNHCR said in a statement, without giving an estimate for the total.

"Refugees tell us the increased fighting and changing of control of towns and villages, in particular in conflict areas, results in more and more civilians deciding to leave," it said.

Most of the refugees have fled to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan where UNHCR said it had counted 470,457 and 473,587 respectively this week.

Syria's population is 23 million.

(AFP, Reuters)

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