By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Defense Department should stop doing business with a Russian arms exporter that is providing weapons to a Syrian government killing its citizens, a bipartisan group of 17 senators said Monday.
In a letter to Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, the lawmakers cited reports of Russia's nearly $1 billion in arms sales to Syria last year, recent shipments from the Rosoboronexport company and a January deal for the government of President Bashar Assad to purchase 36 combat jets from the state-controlled arms export firm.
At the same time, the lawmakers said the Defense Department, led by the Army, has agreed to buy 21 dual use Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan military from Rosoboronexport. The no-bid contract for aircraft and spare parts is worth $375 million with options for additional purchases.
The arms sales and business deals come as the United Nations estimates that the Syrian government's bloody crackdown on its people has left more than 7,500 dead.
"U.S. taxpayers should not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians," the lawmakers wrote. "The sizeable proceeds of this Defense Department contracts are helping to finance a firm that is essentially complicit in mass atrocities in Syria, especially in light of Russia's history of forgiving huge amounts of Syria's debt on arms sales, as occurred in 2005 during President Assad's state visit to Moscow."
The lawmakers called on Panetta to use all available leverage with Russian to end their support of the Syrian government and stop all Pentagon business dealings with Rosoboronexport.
"Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would undermine U.S. policy on Syria and undermine U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people," the lawmakers wrote.
Leading the lawmakers were Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Last week, Cornyn pressed Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about deals with Rosoboronexport at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Dempsey confirmed that the United States was buying helicopters for the Afghan military, but couldn't confirm that Rosoboronexport was the company. Both Panetta and Dempsey said they would have to look into the deal.
Panetta did talk in general terms about Russia's support for the Syrian government.
"They've transferred not only military aid but also economic assistance as well. So they've had a very long-standing relationship with Syria that makes them, as I said, one of the key players if they really wanted to assert, you know, the kind of responsibility they should. They would be a key player in bringing pressure on Assad," Panetta said.
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