U.S. Senator Challenges Pentagon over Russian Arms to Syria
MOSCOW, June 13 (RIA Novosti) - A U.S. Senator has called on the Pentagon to take action against Russia's state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, which he claims is "arming the Assad regime" in Syria.
"I remain deeply troubled that the [Defense Department] would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria," Republican Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of U.S. sanctions against it, not a billion-dollar contract."
Cornyn was referring to a U.S. Army contract with the Moscow-based firm to buy 21 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan's forces. Pentagon officials have said Washington could place an order for additional 12 helicopters, bringing the total value of the purchase to about $1 billion.
Cornyn invoked his senatorial prerogative to put a hold on Heidi Shyu, U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee to serve as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, as a means of pressurizing the Pentagon to review the contact.
But a Pentagon spokesman said dealing with Rosoboronexport was the "only legally available method" to supply the helicopters to Afghanistan.
"We understand the concerns. We're not ignoring them," Pentagon spokesman George Little told a news briefing on Tuesday. "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."
Rosoboronexport was subject to U.S. sanctions from 2006 to 2010 for allegedly providing nations including Iran and Syria with equipment that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Russia is the biggest supplier of arms to Syria, and maintains its only military base outside the former Soviet Union there. Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin said Russian arms were not being used against pro-democracy protesters fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a claim derided as "patently untrue" by U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.
Speaking in Washington, Clinton accused Russia of sending combat helicopters to Syria, saying the shipment will escalate the 15-month-old conflict "quite dramatically."
Russia has insisted its arms shipments to Damascus were not violating any international laws, but has twice - along with China - vetoed UN resolutions against Damascus over what it calls a pro-rebel bias.
Rosoboronexport declined to comment when contacted by RIA Novosti.
Mil helicopters, which make Mi-17 and Mi-24 attack helicopters, was also unavailable for comment.
Earlier this month, five U.S. defense firms competing for a U.S. army tender issued in April announced plans to use Rosoboronexport as a subcontractor, in a move condemnned by rights activists.
The decision to subcontract through the Russian company was "out of step" with Obama's committment to stop the violence in Syria, the Human Rights First group said on Tuesday.
A U.S. intelligence report released earlier this week also said the firm was supplying equipment for Iran's disputed missile program.
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