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Russia continues arms sales to Syria despite Western protests

Russia has increased its delivery of arms to Syria that critics say are being used against Syrians.

By Thomas Grove and Erika SolomonReuters / February 21, 2012



Moscow and Beirut

Russia faces a growing international outcry over its arms sales to Syria but shows no sign of bowing to pressure and has even increased deliveries of arms that critics say are helping keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.

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The biggest importer of arms to Syria, Russia sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of arms including missile systems last year, while shipments of hard-to-track Russian small weapons have risen since the uprising against Assad started, government defectors say.

In January, the Russian ship Chariot, loaded with arms and ammunition, turned off its radar and sailed quietly to Syria to avoid attracting the attention of world powers increasingly frustrated by Russia and China's refusal to back U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at ending 11 months of violence.

Citing the increased violence, Arab and Western countries have started hinting they could arm Assad's opponents, a move that some political and defense analysts say could increase the possibility of civil war.

Moscow accuses the West of being one-sided, and says the arms it sells have not been used by Assad loyalists to kill 7,000 people, a figure used by advocacy groups, as violence has raged.

But rebel soldiers and an official who defected from the government say Moscow's small arms trade with Damascus is booming, and the government doubled its military budget in 2011 to pay for the crackdown on the opposition.

"I would say that on average the funds (for Defense Ministry expenditure) were doubled for 2011," said Mahmoud Suleiman Haj Hamad, the former chief auditor for Syria's Defense Ministry who defected in January.

He said by telephone from Cairo that Russian arms accounted for 50 percent of all deals before Assad's crackdown on the protesters. China and North Korea provided 30 percent, and Iran and other suppliers 20 percent, he said.

The government had boosted its defense budget and arms imports by cutting funds to other ministries in areas such as education and health by as much as 30 percent, he said.

"Before the uprising, Russia was trading weapons with Syria in a more limited manner. More recently ... Russia began giving more weapons to Syria," he said.

"To my knowledge, Russia was shipping monthly," he said, referring to deliveries prior to his defection last month.

A LEGAL TRADE

ThomsonReuters shipping data shows at least four cargo ships since December that left the Black Sea port of Oktyabrsk - used by Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport for arms shipments - have headed for or reached the Syrian port of Tartous.

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