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Syrian conflict: US accuses Russia of sending attack helicopters

The head of NATO, meanwhile, has ruled out military intervention – saying it’s ‘not the right path’ to resolve conflict.

Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

US SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Clinton has accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to Syria, warning it will escalate conflict and openly questioning whether the UN mission can survive beyond the end of its mandate in July.

As a top UN peacekeeping official said Syria had now descended into civil war, Clinton said the future of the UN mission could be in doubt if no progress is made in implementing the peace plan drawn up by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“There’s no doubt that the onslaught continues, the use of heavy artillery and the like,” Clinton told a discussion with Israeli president Shimon Peres.

Washington had pressed Moscow, a longstanding ally of Damascus, to stop what Clinton called “continued arms shipments to Syria.”

“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,” the top US diplomat insisted.

“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 added.

Annan has been trying to implement on the ground his six-point peace plan, which calls for both sides to lay down their arms immediately and participate in Syrian-led political transition.

But there has been increasing violence as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has refused to step aside and instead unleashed his heavily armed forces against the opposition movements.

Activists say some 14,100 people have now been killed in the uprising against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for some four decades.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said yesterday that the country had now descended into full scale civil war. Asked whether he believed Syria is in a civil war, 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,” he said, confirming that UN observers had heard reports of attack helicopters being used.

Given the prolonged violence, Clinton openly questioned whether the UN mission in Syria could survive once its 90-day mandate expires on July 20.

“We have a timeline in mind to see whether or not this effort of Kofi’s can be successful. The outer limit of that is July when the Security Council has to decide whether or not to extend the mission,” she said.

“If there is no discernible movement by then it would be very difficult to extend a mission that is increasingly dangerous for the observers on the ground,” Clinton said.

Experts are increasingly concerned that Syria is becoming the theatre for a proxy war between the United States and its Arab allies, and Russia and Iran.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said, however, that foreign military intervention is “not the right path” in Syria despite Ladsous’s comments.

Rasmussen said there were “no plans at this stage” for a NATO operation, as he condemned the UN Security Council failure to reach agreement as a “big mistake”, saying Russia could have an “instrumental role” in brokering peace.

“A foreign military intervention is not the right path in Syria,” the NATO chief said in a speech to Australian journalists, calling instead for a political solution as envisaged by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“Having said that, I strongly condemn the behaviour of the Syrian security forces and the crackdown on the civilian population. It is absolutely outrageous what we are witnessing and [there is] no doubt that the regime in Syria is responsible for violations of the international law.

I strongly urge the Syrian leadership to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and introduce freedom and democracy.

Rasmussen, who is visiting close NATO ally Australia, said he was not sure “from a legal point of view” whether what was happening could be considered civil war, as claimed by UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.

“But definitely and very clearly the situation is Syria is very serious, and we have seen horrendous acts conducted by the regime and forces loyal to the regime and I strongly condemn these acts.”

- © AFP, 2012

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