BEIRUT - Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday denied allegations by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Moscow was sending attack helicopters to the Syrian military.
All of Russia's military contracts with Syria are for air-defense systems, not for any weaponry that can be used in civil conflicts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Tehran after meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi.
Lavrov, who at times appeared agitated, insisted that Russia's weapons trade with Syria doesn't violate any international laws or export legislation.
"We don't supply Syria or anyone else with things that are used to fight against peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies that region with such equipment," Lavrov said, according to the Russian-owned RT network.
Washington has said it has only provided "non-lethal" aid, such as communications equipment, to the Syrian opposition.
The comments are the latest in an escalating war of words between Washington and Moscow about Syria, where a 15-month rebellion has threatened the government of President Bashar Assad, a longtime Russian ally. Since Soviet days, Syria has been a major arms client for Moscow. Russia still maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.
The Obama administration has called on Assad to step down, saying his government has lost legitimacy because of its brutal crackdown on dissent.
Russia says it indifferent to whether Assad remains in power, but rejects foreign "interference" in Syria's affairs and is concerned about the nation's stability if Assad goes. Both sides say they support United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan's faltering six-point peace plan for Syria.
But Clinton has charged that Russia's policies _ Moscow has twice led U.N. vetoes of Security Council resolutions condemning Assad's actions _ were contributing to what could become a civil war in Syria. On Tuesday, Clinton asserted in Washington that "there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported Wednesday that forces loyal to Assad had "restored security and calm" to the strife-ridden western highland town of Haffah in coastal Latakia province after a week of clashes with rebels. Authorities were pursuing "armed terrorist groups" _ as the government refers to insurgents _ into neighboring villages, "leading to the killing of many terrorists" and the arrest of others, the news agency reported.
Opposition activists say the military had been besieging the formerly rebel-controlled area, bombarding residential areas with artillery, tanks and attack helicopters. The U.S. State Department warned of a possible massacre of civilians by pro-government forces in Haffah.
Neither the official accounts nor the opposition statements could be independently verified because the Syrian government restricts the access of outside media to the conflict zones.
In an apparent move to defuse tension between Damascus and the United Nations, the Foreign Ministry invited the U.N. observer team to visit Haffah.
But the government also refuted comments by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, French diplomat Herve Ladsous, that Syria was experiencing a civil war. Damascus calls the conflict a war against "terrorists" and a "foreign conspiracy."
Los Angeles Times special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.