US sends missiles to Turkey as Russia denies switch over Assad

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The Pentagon has said it will send Patriot air defence missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a Nato force meant to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attack.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said defence secretary Leon Panetta signed a deployment order yesterday while en route to Turkey from Afghanistan.

The order calls for 400 US soldiers to operate two batteries of Patriots at undisclosed locations in Turkey, Mr Little told reporters.

Turkey is a founding member of Nato and requested that the alliance provide Patriots. They will be sent by Nato members Germany and the Netherlands as well as the US for an undetermined period.

In another development, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has denied that a top diplomat said Syrian president Bashar Assad is losing control of his country.

It said that deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov “has not made any statements or special interviews recently” on Syria but was simply citing the stance of the Syrian opposition while giving a speech yesterday.

Russian state-owned news agencies had quoted Mr Bogdanov as saying that rebels might win the civil war, a comment that appeared to shift Russia’s stance on Syria dramatically.

The US later commended Russia for “waking up to the reality” by acknowledging the regime’s impending fall. Analysts viewed the diplomat’s statement as Russia’s attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad’s eventual defeat.

The foreign ministry insisted that Mr Bogdanov was referring only to the claims of the “Syrian opposition and its foreign sponsors forecasting their quick victory over the regime in Damascus”.

“In that context, Bogdanov again confirmed Russia’s principled stance that a political settlement in Syria has no alternative,” the ministry’s spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said in the statement.

Mr Bogdanov had been speaking at the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. His statement quoted by Russian news agencies appeared to mark the first official acknowledgment from Moscow that Assad’s regime may fall.

It was certain to be seen as a betrayal by the Syrian ruler, further eroding his grip on power amid opposition successes on the ground and recognition of the Syrian opposition by the US and other leading world powers.

While Mr Bogdanov’s statement seemed to signal an attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad’s eventual defeat, the foreign ministry’s backtracking on that clearly indicated that Russia has no intention yet to end backing for its ally.

Mr Bogdanov’s comments were quoted verbatim by state-owned news agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass, and also by non-Government agency Interfax.

Facing questions about Mr Bogdanov’s statement during a briefing, Mr Lukashevich insisted that there has been no shift in the Russian position on Syria. He said that Moscow was continuing to call for a political dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on the basis of the agreement reached at a conference in Geneva in June.

“Our only goal is to end violence in Syria as quickly as possible, start a dialogue between the Syrians, between the government and the opposition and work out a formula for advancing a political process,” he said. “There hasn’t been and there won’t be any retraction from our principled line on the Syrian affairs.”

The ministry’s denial came about 22 hours after the minister’s remarks.