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U.S. trades barbs with Russia on Syria fight; Tensions precede top-level meeting

Tensions between the United States and Russia flared Wednesday as the former Cold War foes traded blame for the violence in Syria just days before a planned meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held to her explosive accusation that the "latest information" in U.S. hands is that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime at the risk of fomenting a dangerous civil war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov fired back by alleging that the United States has sent military support to the region with the same result.

The public U.S.-Russian rift is occurring at a time that the Obama administration had hoped to court Moscow's support for a transition plan to end the Assad regime. If nothing else, the dispute underlines the American government's continued difficulty in finding a strategy to pacify Syria after 15 months of brutal government crackdowns and armed rebellion.

A day after blasting Moscow for purportedly sending new helicopter gunships to Syria, Clinton lamented Wednesday that repeated U.S. requests to the Russian government to suspend its military ties with Damascus had fallen on deaf ears.

"We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries," Clinton told reporters. "We know, because they confirm, that they continue to deliver, and we believe that the situation is spiraling toward civil war. It is now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia to speak to Assad in unified voice and insist that the violence stop."

In Tehran, Lavrov rejected the helicopter charge and blamed Washington for fueling the conflict. He said his government was completing earlier weapons contracts with Syria exclusively for air defense systems, which generally refers to surface-to-air missiles, radar and other such materiel. He didn't speak specifically about helicopters but insisted that nothing being delivered could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

Lavrov was widely quoted as accusing the United States of providing Syrian dissidents with weapons, but he said only that the United States was supplying "special means" to the region, not to the rebels.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney softened Clinton's accusation against Russia, calling it one element of a larger argument the United States is making that Russia should do more to spur political change in Syria. He would not say whether Obama and Putin would discuss arms sales on the sidelines of the meeting of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging market nations in Mexico next week.

Meanwhile, Syrian forces overran a mountain enclave near the Mediterranean coast Wednesday, seizing the territory back from rebels as a serious escalation in violence signaled both sides are using more powerful weapons.

With the bloodshed ramping up, France joined the U.N. peacekeeping chief in declaring that Syria was in a state of civil war.

Syria's Foreign Ministry expressed "astonishment" over the assertions Wednesday.

"Syria is not witnessing a civil war, but rather an armed conflict to uproot terrorism and confront killings, kidnappings, bombings and other brutal acts," the ministry said.