* Clinton says helicopter sale would escalate conflict
* Syria conflict is civil war, UN official says
* Pentagon buys helicopters from Russian arms exporter
(Adds senator holding up nomination of Pentagon official)
By Phil Stewart and Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, June 12 The United States is worried
Russia may be sending Syria attack helicopters and views Russian
claims that its arms transfers to Syria are unrelated to the
conflict there as "patently untrue," U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday.
The comments came as the Pentagon found itself on the
defensive for doing business with Russian state arms exporter
Rosoboronexport, given concerns in Congress about the firm's
role in arming the Syrian regime.
The 15-month-old conflict in Syria has grown into a
full-scale civil war, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said on
Many hundreds of people, including civilians, rebels and
members of President Bashar al-Assad's army and security forces
have been killed since a ceasefire deal brokered two months ago
was meant to halt the bloodshed.
"We have confronted the Russians about stopping their
continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time,
said that we shouldn't worry - everything they are shipping is
unrelated to their (the Syrian government's) actions
internally," Clinton said, addressing a forum in Washington.
"That's patently untrue."
Clinton did not offer any details about the source of her
information about Russia's possible shipment of attack
helicopters to Syria, saying only: "We are concerned about the
latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on
the way from Russia to Syria."
She said such a sale "will escalate the conflict quite
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters
that Clinton was concerned about helicopters now en route to
Syria and not about possible past sales of Russian-origin attack
helicopters to Syria.
She said that she could not elaborate or speculate on the
source of Clinton's information.
Russia and China are Assad's principal defenders on the
diplomatic front and, as permanent members of the U.N. Security
Council with the power to veto resolutions, have stymied efforts
by Western powers to condemn or call for the removal of Assad.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than
10,000 people since the uprising against his family's
four-decade rule of Syria broke out in March 2011.
Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said he had no
knowledge of a new helicopter shipment but acknowledged that
Assad's regime was turning to helicopters to stage attacks.
"We know that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships
against their own people," Kirby said.
Asked whether Russia's resupply of military equipment to
Syria was enabling the Syrian armed forces to continue the
killings, Kirby said: "To the degree that the Syrian armed
forces use that resupply to kill their own people, then yes."
RUSSIA AND THE AFGHAN WAR
The Syrian government's use of Russian-made arms has thrown
a spotlight on the Pentagon's purchase of Russian helicopters
for the Afghan military, which the United States is building up
so that it can take over security as American troops withdraw.
This week, U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Senate
Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary
Leon Panetta branding Russian export firm Rosoboronexport "an
enabler of mass murder in Syria."
"I remain deeply troubled that the (Pentagon) would
knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass
atrocities," Cornyn wrote. "Such actions by Rosoboronexport
warrant th e renewal of U.S. sanctions against it, not a
billion-dollar (Pentagon) contract."
A Cornyn aide told Reuters the senator put a hold on the
nomination of Heidi Shyu to serve as Assistant Secretary of the
Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, as a way to
pressure the Pentagon over the matter.
But the Pentagon said dealing with Rosoboronexport was the
only legal way to supply the helicopters to Afghanistan and
attempted to differentiate between the two conflicts.
"We understand the concerns. We're not ignoring them," said
Pentagon spokesman George Little. "But I would make the point
that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Mi-17 is about giving them
what they need and what they can use effectively to take on
their own fights inside their own country."
The Pentagon's Kirby dismissed concerns that U.S. reliance
on ground supply routes through Russia hampered its ability to
speak out over arms shipments to Syria. But at the same time, he
repeatedly stressed the need to blame Assad for the atrocities,
as opposed to overly focusing on weapons suppliers.
"The focus really needs to be more on what the Assad regime
is doing to its own people than the cabinets and the closets to
which they turn to pull stuff out," he said. "It's really about
what they're doing with what they've got in their hands."
In a March letter to Cornyn, Under Secretary of Defense for
Policy James Miller acknowledged that "Rosoboronexport continues
to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime and ...
there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by
Syrian forces against Syria's civilian population."
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart; Editing by
Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)