Russia sends planes in sign of Syria evacuation

Russia sends planes in sign of Syria evacuation

Russia sends planes in sign of Syria evacuation

Russian nationals evacuated from Damascus sit in a bus as their convoy arrives at the Masna’a border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. REUTERS photo

Russia has started to evacuate its citizens from war-torn Syria, with up to 150 Russian nationals preparing to flee over the next two days. Two planes have been sent to Beirut from Moscow, while four buses are carrying Russians into Lebanon, in the first evacuation organized by Moscow since the start of the conflict nearly two years ago.

About 80 people, mostly women and children, were on the buses, according to an official from the Russian Embassy in Beirut who was waiting for the group at the Masnaa border crossing in eastern Lebanon. The evacuation is being interpreted as the strongest sign yet of Russia’s doubts as to the ability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to cling to power. A Russian diplomat insisted that the airlift was not the start of an operation to evacuate Russian nationals from Syria. “There are thousands of Russian citizens in Syria. Russian airline is no longer flying to Damascus, so we are helping 100, a maximum of 150, people leave Syria via Beirut,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Though the Russian consulate in Damascus is open, the road linking the international airport to the capital has fallen prey to violence in recent weeks, as rebels seek to cut off the regime’s main link to the outside world. The diplomat downplayed earlier reports that Moscow was evacuating its citizens from Syria. “This is not an evacuation. There is no pressure at all on Russians in Syria to leave the country, because there are many areas in Damascus which are completely safe and free from violence,” the diplomat said. However, he added that the planes scheduled to leave yesterday and today would not be the last to help Russians flee the strife-torn country. “It will be an ongoing operation. Whenever enough people request assistance in Damascus, we will arrange for new planes,” he said.

Border clashes escalate

As Russia started to evacuation clashes continued in Turkish border. At least 56 people have been killed in a week of fighting in northeast Syria, near the Turkish border, between rebels and Kurdish militants, activists said yesterday. A Turkish official said a man in a Turkish border town was hit in the head by a stray bullet fired during clashes. The man is the third person in the past week to be wounded in the border town of Ceylanpınar by bullets from across the frontier in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain. Authorities also shut down schools in the town yesterday after the incident.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday that the rebels were using tanks and mortars against Kurdish forces. In a separate incident, the group said at least 42 people including women and children had been killed when a car bomb targeting a pro-government militia went off on Jan. 21 evening in the town of Salamiyah, east of the central city of Hama.

Fighters of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units clashed with several rebel groups in the city of Ras al-Ain in Syria’s northern Hasaka province, the Observatory said. “The clashes erupted [last] Wednesday ... and [have] resulted in the deaths of at least 56 fighters,” the group said.

Clashes came as four batteries of Patriot missiles, two each from Germany and the Netherlands, reached Turkey on Jan. 21, a NATO source said. The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are each sending two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey after Ankara asked NATO to beef up security along its volatile border with Syria.