America accused Russia yesterday of sending attack helicopters to Syria and of telling lies about the use of its arms shipments. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of using helicopter gunships to strafe rebel positions in cities across the country.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said: "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. That's patently untrue.
"And we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
She issued the warning as United Nations peace monitors were fired on after trying to enter a besieged town that the US fears is a target of the regime for a new massacre. The observers were driven back from Haffa by angry crowds who threw rocks and metal bars at them. They were fired on as they tried to withdraw.
Asked whether Syria was now in a state of civil war, Herve Ladsous, the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, said: "I think we can say that. Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities to the opposition, and wants to retake control. There is a massive increase in the level of violence."
A UN report also accused the regime of using children as human shields. "Children as young as nine were victims of killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, and use as human shields," the report said.
Syian activists say they believe the loyalist Shabiha militia is among the security forces surrounding Haffa, which lies in an exposed position on the edge of the mountains north-east of the coastal city of Lattakia. The hills are the stronghold of the Alawite sect to which Mr Assad belongs and his family's home village is less than 15 miles away.
The town is surrounded by regime forces and has been under fire from helicopter gunships as well as land-based artillery. Scores of civilians, rebels and regime troops have been killed in the fighting, which did not let up yesterday despite the arrival of the UN team.
Residents of Houla and Qubair to the south, scene of two of the worst recent massacres of the 15-month conflict, said Shabiha from Alawite villages nearby were responsible.
"We are afraid that what happened in Houla will happen here," said Seema Nassar, an activist speaking from a village near Haffa. (© Daily Telegraph, London)