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Russian official says military specialists, not troops, sent to Syria: Reports

Russia's deputy minister of foreign affairs comments come amid speculation that the country has ramped up its military support for Syria
A Russian plane lands in Latakia in February 2013 to pick up Russian citizens trying to flee the civil war (AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA)

A Russian official has reportedly said that his country is sending specialists into Syria to train the Syrian military to use Russian equipment.

Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail Bogdanov also reportedly demanded to know why Bulgaria had blocked its airspace to Russian planes, according to Interfax News Agency.

Bogdanov's comments come a day after a Syrian official denied reports of increased military activity by Russian troops on its soil.

Last week, Washington said it was looking into claims of ramped up support for Syria from Moscow, warning that any confirmed activity would be "destabilising and counter-productive".

US Secretary of State John Kerry had told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that the US was "concerned" about Russian military reinforcements in Syria, the State Department said.  

Speaking late on Monday to Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station, Syrian Information Minister Omran Zohbi dismissed the reports as baseless.

"There is absolutely nothing to these rumours and what was said a few days ago," Zohbi said of reports of increased aid from Russia, a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

"There are no Russian forces, and there is no Russian military activity on Syrian territory by land, sea or air," Zohbi told Al-Manar, which is run by Hezbollah, whose forces have been key to bolstering the Assad government. 

Bulgaria's foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday that the country has refused permission to allow an unknown number of Russian planes to pass through its airspace amid the growing US concerns. 

"The planes were said to carry humanitarian aid but we had information, that we had every reason to trust, that the declared cargo was not the real one," foreign ministry spokeswoman Betina Zhoteva told AFP.

A Greek official said on Monday that his country had received a request from the US to block Russian supply planes heading to Syria from flying through Greek air space.

Moscow said that the aid it provides to Damascus is normal.

Russia maintains a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the origins of which date back to Moscow's close relationship with Damascus under the Soviet Union. 

Zohbi said the rumours about increased Russian aid were "circulated by Western intelligence and in some Arab intelligence services to give the impression... that Russia is intervening directly in order to put pressure on Syria... and that the Syrian state has weakened so much it needs direct help from its friends."

"Syrian-Russian ties in the military context are a prolonged relationship, and whatever is coming from the Russian military to Syria is a result of previous agreements that were settled in the past, and are not something new," Zohbi told Al-Manar.

He accused the US and others of providing "lethal aid to armed terrorist groups" that he said were falsely presented as being part of the moderate opposition.