Syrian ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad, second from left, lays flowers… (Misha Japaridze / Associated…)
MOSCOW -- The Russian government is sending planes to the Mideast to evacuate Russians who want to leave Syria, an official said Monday night.
“On orders from the leadership of the Russian Federation, the Emergency Situations Ministry is sending two planes ... to Beirut so that all Russians wishing to leave Syria could leave,” the ministry’s spokesperson, Irina Rossius, told the RIA-Novosti news agency.
The announcement was the latest indication of concern in Moscow about the deteriorating security situation in Syria. Russia has close ties with the embattled government of President Bashar Assad.
Rossius said the planes each can accommodate about 100 passengers. The action does not signal anything close to a complete withdrawal of Russians from Syria. There are an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Russian nationals in the country.
“It is no secret that there is a whole number of Russians who are willing to leave Syria in the face of all the violence going on in that country,” Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of the monthly journal National Defense, said in an interview. “Regular passenger flights from Damascus are expensive and this is a goodwill measure on the part of the Russian government to evacuate those people, mostly women and children."
He added: “This shouldn’t be regarded as the full evacuation campaign yet. ... The real evacuation, when it happens, will have to embrace thousands of people.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry started talking about the possibility of evacuating Russian citizens in December. In the meantime, Russia has amassed in the Mediterranean the biggest force of its warships since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fleet is scheduled to conduct exercises not far from the Syrian coast at the end of January.
A Russian journalist based in Damascus said most Russians in Syria have no intention of leaving soon.
"The Russian embassy has been phoning many Russian citizens based in Syria, primarily in Damascus," Yelena Gromova, a reporter for Sovetskaya Rossiya, a Russian left-wing daily, said in a telephone interview from the Syrian capital. "I know very few people who are really desperate to leave."
"No one believes that the opposition forces can capture Damascus," she added. "The only thing to be really afraid of are random terrorist attacks."
The civil war in Syria began in March 2011 and has claimed more than 60,000 lives, the U.N. has said.
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