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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus, Syria, June 18, 2016. Picture taken June 18, 2016. REUTERS/Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry via Reuters

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By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia blasted senior United Nations officials on Tuesday for their criticism of the behaviour of Syria's security forces during the country's five-year civil war and failure to acknowledge that those troops are fighting terrorist groups.

Speaking at a special meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien and U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic criticized all warring parties, including the government, for rampant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Their assessments of the situation in Syria came after U.N. peace mediator Staffan de Mistura cited recent progress in unifying Syria's fractious opposition and in bringing aid to besieged areas, though the process was fragile. He said a new full round of peace talks was unlikely before July.

Deputy Russian U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safrankov took issue with the criticism of the Syrian government.

"Today's discussion ... is being held in such a way as if there are no terrorist threats in Syria," he told the 193-nation Assembly. "Why aren't you saying that these officers, generals and soldiers are facing terrorist organizations - the Islamic State, Nusra Front, al Qaeda?"

He said a real ceasefire was needed and that Russia and the United States were doing what they could to push for one.

Russia, like Iran, is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is using its military to provide air cover for Syrian government forces.

O'Brien presented a number of statistics about the damage the war has done to the Syrian population: life expectancy has dropped by 20 years; half the population is forcibly displaced; 13.5 million people are in urgent need of aid; and 80 percent of Syrians now live in poverty.

"Warring parties have displayed a brazen and brutal disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law," he said.

O'Brien said the government was the main force behind the siege of some 590,000 civilians in Syria and that the horrors of the war make people flee abroad, hundreds of whom end up drowning in the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers.

Simonovic cited "millions of human rights violations" in Syria. He said the conflict began with violations against peaceful protesters in 2011 who were calling for freedom of expression and assembly.

"This should have led to reforms and peaceful political development instead of the violent crackdown that unleashed the unspeakable violations we see today," he said. "Terrorists gained ground in this lawless environment."

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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