Russia on Tuesday sent two planes to Syria to pick up Russians wanting to leave the conflict-torn country as the navy despatched four warships to the Mediterranean reportedly for a possible larger evacuation.
Moscow, which unlike other world powers still keeps close ties with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, also announced it would host Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem for talks on the crisis next week.
Observers are watching for any hints of Russia planning a full-scale evacuation of its citizens, which would be seen as a tacit admission from Moscow that Assad is doomed in his fight against rebels.
Two emergencies ministry planes carrying humanitarian aid landed in the Syrian port city of Latakia after flying from Moscow and would take back any Russians wanting to leave on their return trip, the ministry said.
Meanwhile the defence ministry said Russia is sending four more warships to the Mediterranean Sea to join an escort ship and smaller vessels that are already on duty in the region.
The defence ministry said in a statement to Russian news agencies that the ships would be on “military service” but gave no further details.
But a military source quoted by RIA Novosti said their main task could be taking part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.
“Even though the tasks of the warships have not been announced, it can be assumed that given the development of the situation in the region their main job will be taking part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria,” said the source.
The Russian emergencies ministry Ilyushin-62 and Ilyushin-76 planes were carrying over 40 tonnes of humanitarian aid and would be ready to evacuate Russians from the country, a ministry statement said.
The aid consists of electrical equipment, bedding, tents as well as foodstuffs like fish and milk conserves as well as sugar.
“Citizens of Russia and the (ex-Soviet grouping) CIS wanting to leave can leave Syria on these planes,” the ministry said, adding that the departure from Latakia back to Moscow was planned for later Tuesday.
It said a hotline had been set up for Russians who were thinking of leaving Syria, with psychologists on hand to take the calls.
The Interfax news agency quoted sources in the Russian community in Syria as saying that 150 Russians and other ex-Soviet citizens could be flown out on the planes.
According to Russian media, 8,000 Russians are registered with the consulate in Syria but there could be as many as 25,000 Russian women who have married Syrians living in the country.
The voluntary evacuation would be the second such operation organised by Russia after it took out 77 people fleeing Syria on two planes flying from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon in January.
But it would be the first directly from the territory of Syria itself.
Latakia is a Mediterranean port city whose region is dominated by the Alawite community, the Muslim sect to which Assad, his family and much of the regime’s elite belong.
The city remains under government control after almost two years of conflict between Assad’s forces and rebels that according to the United Nations has left 70,000 dead.
Latakia has been seen by some analysts as a possible last redoubt for Assad, should the tables turn against him in the conflict, or even as the capital of a future possible breakaway Alawite statelet.
But Assad has said he is confident his troops will win the conflict ravaging Syria, according to comments published this week in Lebanon’s pro-Damascus newspaper As-Safir.
With the conflict still intensifying, hundreds of troops backed by military vehicles poured into the northern province of Aleppo on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The deployment follows unexpected advances by the rebels in their thrust to seize control of air bases in northern Syria and to capture Aleppo’s international airport.
Fighting between rebels and troops also erupted Tuesday in southern Damascus, where the army deployed reinforcements in a bid to drive insurgents out of belts surrounding the capital, the Observatory said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Muallem will be in Moscow on February 25 but added that no date had yet been set for separate talks with the Syrian opposition.