State Department: Syria-bound Russian attack helicopters in Hillary Clinton's accusations not new

Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunships kick up dust near Urus Martan, Chechnya, Dec. 7, 1999. Syria has received dozens of Soviet-built Mi-8 transport helicopters and Mi-24 helicopter gunships since the Cold War, with the last deliveries taking place in the 1990s. Some of them require major repairs that can only be done by Russian repair plants. AP Photo

Updated at 2:57 p.m. ET

(AP) WASHINGTON - The State Department is acknowledging that the Russian helicopters Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said represented an escalation in the Syrian conflict were actually returning to Syria after being refurbished and are not new tools against Syrian opposition groups.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the U.S. is nevertheless concerned that the helicopters will be used by President Bashar Assad's regime to kill civilians.

She says three helicopters are on the way to Syria after being out of commission for at least six months. And she says that's "three more that can be used to kill civilians."

Clinton accused Russia earlier of escalating the crisis by sending helicopters, but didn't say they were refurbished.

Nuland on Thursday declined to say why the State Department didn't divulge that detail earlier.

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Tensions between the U.S. and Russia flared Wednesday as the former Cold War foes traded blame for the violence in Syria just days before a planned meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Clinton had held to her explosive accusation, saying Russia was at the risk of fomenting a dangerous civil war and attributing it to the "latest information" in U.S. hands. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov fired back by alleging that the U.S. has sent military support to the region with the same result.

The public U.S.-Russian rift is occurring at a time that the Obama administration had hoped to court Moscow's support for a transition plan to end the Assad regime. If nothing else, the dispute underlines the American government's continued difficulty in finding a strategy to pacify Syria after 15 months of brutal government crackdowns and armed rebellion.

A day after blasting Moscow for purportedly sending new helicopter gunships to Syria, Clinton lamented on Wednesday that repeated U.S. requests to the Russian government to suspend its military ties with Damascus had fallen on deaf ears.

"We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries," Clinton told reporters. "We know, because they confirm, that they continue to deliver and we believe that the situation is spiraling toward civil war. It is now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia ... to speak to Assad in unified voice and insist that the violence stop."

Clinton questioned Russia's insistence that "it wants peace and stability restored" and that it is not wedded to Assad's remaining in power. "It also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep," she said. "They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now."

In Tehran, Lavrov rejected the helicopter charge and blamed Washington for fueling the conflict. He said his government was completing earlier weapons contracts with Syria exclusively for air defense systems, which generally refers to surface-to-air missiles, radar and other such materiel. He didn't speak specifically about helicopters but insisted that nothing being delivered could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

Lavrov was widely quoted as accusing the U.S. of providing Syrian dissidents with weapons, but he only said the U.S. was supplying "special means" to the region, not the rebels.

"We are not supplying to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which is regularly sending such special means to countries in the region," he said. "For some reason, the Americans consider this to be in order. We are not delivering such means and are delivering only that which Syria requires in the event of an armed attack on it from outside."

Nevertheless, Clinton said Wednesday: "The United States has provided no military support to the opposition. None."

The U.S. has helped other countries vet potential recipients of military aid in the hope that none of the weapons heading into the region end up with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Responding to Lavrov's dismissal of the U.S. helicopter claims, Nuland said Wednesday: "I would encourage him to check with his own authorities."

"Russian and Soviet-made helicopters form the base of the Syrian helicopter fleet," Nuland told reporters. "We are seeing these helicopters used all over Syria now against civilians. We are seeing gun mounts on these being used to fire on populations in Homs, in Hama, in Lattakia, in Idlib. We have seen the Russians resupply weapons they have sold to the Syrians as recently as January."

In making the initial charge on Tuesday, Clinton cited what she called the "latest information" the U.S. had about helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria. The remark appeared to catch many in the Obama administration unprepared, but two U.S. officials said that Clinton was repeating information contained in a classified intelligence briefing circulated Tuesday morning.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified material. Another official said the Syrians use both Mi-8/17 HIP and Mi-24/25 HIND helicopters. The HIP is a multi-purpose helicopter used primarily for transport but can be modified to carry hull-mounted weapons for air-to-ground strike missions. The HIND is an attack helicopter specifically designed for air-to-ground strikes using missiles, rockets and heavy machine guns.

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