Russia halts arms sales to Syria

Moscow will not deliver new weapons to Syria, including a batch of fighter aircraft ordered by Damascus.

Syrian armed forces performing military exercises at an undisclosed location. Russia has said it won't be adding to that arsenal while during the instability.
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DAMASCUS // Moscow will not deliver new weapons to Syria, including a batch of fighter aircraft ordered by Damascus.

In what appeared to signal a toughening of the Kremlin's stance with its ally, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, the deputy chief of the agency that supervises Russia's arms trade, said conditions in Syria were not suitable.

Rights monitors say about 16,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the 16-month uprising. United Nations observers confirm government forces have used heavy artillery and attack helicopters in assaults on residential neighbourhoods.

Armed rebels have also been increasing insurgent-style operations, and conditions in parts of the country now resemble an all-out civil war.

"While the situation in Syria is unstable, there will be no new deliveries of arms there," Mr Dzirkaln, deputy chief of the military and technical cooperation agency, said at the Farnborough Airshow in Britain. "In the current situation, talking about deliveries of planes to Syria is premature."

Russia is believed to have signed a contract last year to sell about 40 Yak-130 jets to Damascus. Designed as an advanced training aircraft, it is also capable of acting as a fighter and of carrying out ground attacks and reconnaissance missions.

Moscow, a key ally of the Syrian government and its principal arms supplier, has come under intense criticism for shipping weapons to Bashar Al Assad while the president's forces are suppressing an anti-regime revolt.

Russia has also given Mr Al Assad a crucial diplomatic shield at the UN and blocked attempts to pass Security Council resolutions critical of the Syrian authorities.

A shipment of reconditioned military helicopters was stopped en route from Russia to Syria last month under pressure from European and US governments.

"Previously,we were fulfilling old contracts, including repairs of the machines. Until the situation stabilises, we will not carry out any new arms deliveries," Mr Dzirkaln said.

There was no comment on the announcement yesterday either from other Russian officials or from the Syrian authorities.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said action must be taken to force the Syrian regime and opposition groups to come to a peaceful settlement but repeated warnings against foreign military intervention.

"I am convinced that we must do everything possible to force the conflicting sides to find a peaceful political solution to all the disputed issues," Mr Putin said.

"Of course, this is more difficult and delicate work than the crude use of outside force. But only this can ensure a long-term settlement and the future stable development of the situation in the region."

Abdel Basset Sayda, the head of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella opposition group, is due to visit Moscow tomorrow for talks with Russian officials. Michael Kilo, a veteran Christian dissident, met Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday, and said later the Syrian regime was still not listening to the people's demands for freedom.

Mr Kilo's voice may counterbalance that of Syria's Christian clerical establishment, which has stood firmly with Mr Al Assad, supporting his insistence that the uprising is the work of murderous Islamist extremists, not ordinary people seeking basic civil rights and democracy after years of unaccountable, autocratic rule.

Patriarch Kirill I, of the Russian Orthodox Church, has given similarly public backing to the Syrian leader and, according to church officials, told Mr Putin he would provide religious support if Moscow takes the political decision to keep backing Mr Al Assad.

The halt to Russian arms deliveries came as Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria, said he and Mr Al Assad had agreed on a new "approach" to end violence, after talks in Damascus yesterday.

Mr Annan said he would discuss the proposal with rebel groups in an effort to implement a ceasefire and start a political transition, agreed at a meeting of world and regional powers in Geneva last month.

"We discussed the need to end the violence and ways and means of doing so," Mr Annan said shortly before flying to Tehran for further discussion of his plans. "We agreed an approach which I will share with the armed opposition."

Mr Annan recently criticised international powers for pumping weapons into Syria while simultaneously professing they want a peaceful, negotiated transition - comments apparently directed both at Russia, which has been backing the Syrian regime, and a western-Arab bloc that has been supporting armed rebel factions.

A six-point peace plan - orchestrated by Mr Annan, agreed by the Syrian authorities in April and endorsed by the UN - has failed to halt bloodshed, with violence worsening since the deal was struck.

Mr Annan has since struggled to salvage the agreement and persuade Mr Al Assad and rebel factions to put down their weapons and start negotiations over a transition to democracy.

In a German TV interview broadcast on Sunday Mr Al Assad remained calmly defiant. He insisted he retained strong backing among the Syrian people and said most of the victims of violence were his supporters.

Negotiations with some opposition groups were possible, Mr Al Assad said, while vowing to fight on against "terrorists" - the term used by the Syrian authorities for armed rebel factions and, under recently announced laws, anyone deemed to be giving them material or moral support.