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Russia criticizes Western, Arab states over arms for Syrian rebels

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A decision by international opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give military support to Western-backed rebels will hamper efforts to find a swift political solution to the conflict, Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

Moscow, a long-standing arms supplier to Damascus, has shielded Assad from more international pressure during more than two years of a conflict that has killed some 93,000 people and driven 1.6 million refugees abroad.

The Friends of Syria group, which brings together Western and Arab states as well as Turkey, agreed in Qatar over the weekend to "provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground".

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that decision could not fail to cause "serious concern".

"One must notice that the aim to provide, in fact, unlimited military support for the Syrian opposition - announced in Doha and in practice already carried out - completely contradicts efforts for a swift political solution in Syria."

Russia is at loggerheads with Washington, which has decided to arm the rebels and accuses Moscow of shielding Assad.

Moscow, which says Syrians themselves should decide their fate without meddling from abroad, has defended its weapons supplies to Damascus, saying they are entirely legal.

Senior Russian and U.S. officials are due to meet the international mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, in Geneva on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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