UPDATE 2-Russia sends ships for possible Syria evacuation -agency

Thomas Grove and Timothy Heritage
Reuters Middle East

* Russia dispatches five vessels to Mediterranean -source

* Ships could extricate Russians from Syria if needed

* Move points to growing worry about rebel move on Damascus

MOSCOW, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Russia has sent warships to the

Mediterranean Sea in case it needs to evacuate its citizens

trapped by the civil war in Syria, a naval source was quoted as

saying on Tuesday.

Their departure points to growing concern in Moscow, a

staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, about rebel

advances on the Syrian capital Damascus and suggests Russia is

pressing ahead quickly with evacuation preparations announced by

a diplomat last week.

In a further indication that Moscow believes an evacuation

may soon be required, the head of Russia's paratroopers was

quoted as saying his units were ready to take part.

The naval source told Interfax news agency that the five

vessels, including two armed landing craft and a tanker, had

left a Baltic port on Monday and could be in the Mediterranean


"They are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a

possible evacuation of Russian citizens ... Preparations for the

deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily

classified," it quoted the source as saying, adding that any

evacuees would be taken to Black Sea ports.

The Defence Ministry declined comment but referred reporters

to a statement on its website that said three vessels had left

for the region from the Barents Sea port of Severomorsk and

would "carry out tasks to protect civilian shipping".

It was not clear if this was the same group of ships the

source was referring to, or another group sent to offer

protection for any operation involving Syria.


Moscow is Syria's biggest arms supplier and has remained an

ally of Assad throughout the 21-month-old uprising. It has

protected him from three consecutive U.N. Security Council

resolutions meant to put pressure on him.

But Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin's

envoy for Middle East affairs, said last week it was possible

that Assad's opponents might win the civil war and that Russia

was looking at preparations for a possible evacuation.

His comments were an unusually pessimistic view of the

conflict by a Russian official, stirring speculation that Moscow

is more concerned about Assad's ability to stay in power than it

has admitted in public.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said after Bogdanov's remarks that

it had not changed its policy on Syria, and Russian officials

sought to dismiss talk of internal differences over


There is a Russian naval maintenance base in the Syrian

Mediterranean port of Tartus and about 5,300 Russian citizens

registered with Russian consular authorities in the country.

But Bogdanov said the majority of Russians there were not

registered. Many are Russian women married to Syrian men, and

their children.

Interfax quoted Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov, the head

of Russia's Airborne Defence Troops, as offering his force's

help in any evacuation. "With full responsibility I declare: 'We

are ready'," he said.

"The airborne defence troops have experience of such

operations, for example evacuating the embassy in Kabul (during

the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan) ... If we get the order

from the defence minister or president, we can carry it out."

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