Two Russian aid planes flying to Syria, may evacuate citizens

Two Russian aid planes flying to Syria, may evacuate citizens

MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
Two Russian aid planes flying to Syria, may evacuate citizens

A plane, transporting medical aid from Russia to the Syrian government, is seen at Damascus airport. REUTERS Photo

Russia sent two planes to Syria to pick up Russians seeking to leave the conflict-torn country on Feb.19, while the navy was also set to dispatch four warships to the Mediterranean for a possible larger evacuation.

Two Emergencies Ministry planes carrying humanitarian aid landed in the Syrian port city of Latakia after flying from Moscow and would be taking back any Russians wanting to leave on their return trip, the ministry said. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said Russia was sending four more warships to the Mediterranean Sea in order to join an escort ship and smaller vessels that are already on duty in the region. The Defense Ministry said in a statement to Russian news agencies that the ships would be on “military service,” but gave no further details.

However, a military source 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 officially been announced, it can be assumed that given the development of the situation in the region their main job will be to take part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria,” said the source.

The Russian Emergencies Ministry’s Ilyushin-62 and Ilyushin-76 planes were carrying over 40 tons 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 late yesterday. It said a hotline had been set up for Russians who were thinking of leaving Syria, with psychologists on hand to take the calls.

Syrian FM due in Moscow

The voluntary evacuation would be the second such operation organized by Russia after it took out 77 people fleeing Syria on two planes flying from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon last month. But it would be the first directly from the territory of Syria itself. Meanwhile, Russia yesterday announced that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would visit Moscow next week for talks aimed at finding a way out of the two-year Syria conflict. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Muallem would be in Moscow on Feb. 25 “to discuss the Syria crisis and measures aimed at beginning dialogue” with the opposition.

But Gatilov, Russia’s point man on the conflict, added that Syria’s National Coalition (SNC) opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib had still not accepted an invitation to visit Russia later this month. Moscow appeared to have hoped to have the two visits coincide so they could present an opportunity for the Syrian government and the opposition to hold their first direct negotiations.