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Russia defends its missile sales to Syria

A Syrian girl sells bread on a war-ravaged street in Deir al-Zor on Thursday, May 9, 2013.

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By The Associated Press
Friday, May 10, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

BEIRUT — Russia defended its sales of anti-aircraft systems to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, just days after joining forces with the United States for a new push to end Syria's civil war through negotiations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov avoided saying whether those sales included advanced S-300 batteries. Israel has asked Russia to cancel what it said was the imminent sale of the S-300 missiles, portrayed by Secretary of State John Kerry as destabilizing to Israel's security.

The S-300s would make it harder for the United States and other countries to even consider intervening militarily or enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria. The United States has urged Russia — an Assad ally along with China, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia — to cut off weapons supplies to Syria.

Despite such disagreements, Russia and the United States decided this week to convene an international conference to bring representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. Such talks would aim at setting up a transitional government. No date has been set.

The regime and the Syrian opposition have welcomed the idea, but with conditions. The opposition says talks can only begin once Assad and his aides have left. The regime says it will keep fighting the rebels, without saying at which stage it would be willing to halt its fire.

The civil war, which began as a popular uprising against Assad in March 2011, has killed tens of thousands of Syrians and displaced several million. The two sides are deadlocked, though the regime has scored recent military gains.

On Friday, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, raised alarm over the western rebel-held town of Qusair, close to Lebanon, which has been besieged by Syrian troops for several weeks.

Pillay said her team reported a major troop buildup in the area and noted that an increasing number of residents were being displaced.

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