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Russia defends arms sales to Syria

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 described the missiles as defensive. He avoided saying whether the 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.

Washington has urged Moscow -- 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. No date has been set. The regime and the Syrian opposition have welcomed the idea, but with conditions.

Yesterday, the UN commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, raised alarm over the 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. The commissioner said she fears atrocities if Qusair is overrun.

Qusair is important to the regime because the area links the capital of Damascus with the coastal region, where regime loyalists are concentrated.

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