* 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.
RUSSIA WAVERING ON 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
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."