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Russian Citizens Flee Conflict In Syria

Russia has insisted it is not evacuating its citizens from Syria, even as two planes left Moscow to begin an airlift of around 100 people from the country.

The aircraft will land in Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon - to where those who wish to leave are believed to be travelling the 70 miles by road.

Syria's international airport in Damascus has come under attack in recent weeks causing several airlines to halt flights.

But officials in Moscow have insisted this is not the start of a mass evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

A Russian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AFP news agency: "There are thousands of Russian citizens in Syria. The issue is that the Russian airline is no longer flying to Damascus, so we are helping some 100, maximum 150 people to leave Syria via Beirut, which is very close.

"We are simply helping people who have gone to the Russian consulate in Damascus requesting assistance."

Russia suspended consular operations in Syria's largest city Aleppo last week after a bombing at its university killed 80 people, but its consulate in the capital Damascus remains open.

The diplomat was adamant: "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 and clashes."

He conceded, however, that this airlift would not be the last to help Russians leave the country.

"It will be an ongoing operation. Whenever enough people request assistance at the consulate in Damascus, we will organise for new planes."

The number set to leave in this operation is a small proportion of the estimated 5,300 Russian citizens registered with authorities in Syria, with the total number thought to be much higher.

Russia's foreign ministry has previously said that contingency plans were being made for a large-scale evacuation, should it become necessary, which would likely include its naval maintenance and supply facility at the Syrian port of Tartous.

A group of five ships including two assault ships, a tanker and an escort vessel have been dispatched from their Baltic Sea port to the Mediterranean, putting them within reach of Syria.

Moscow has also begun high profile naval exercises in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, including off Syria's coast, in what have been described as the largest naval exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some analysts believe the exercises are a cover for the preparation of a mass evacuation from Syria.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst and former politician with President Vladimir Putin's party, told Sky News: "I think that the naval exercises are not so much preparation to defend Bashar Assad's regime, but in preparation for creating security for Russian citizens who are in Syria."

At least eight warships from Russia's Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets are taking part in the manoeuvres, according to Russian news agencies.

Mr Markov, who is now vice-president of Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, explained: "Russia doesn't want to send a signal to everyone that the Russian government believes Bashar Assad won't stay in power, but at the same time the Russian government has to pay attention to the security of all citizens so this is a compromise.

"For Moscow it looks like if Bashar Assad will lose power it will not lead to stability, on the contrary it will lead to civil war - everybody against everybody, almost like what is happening in Libya right now and happened in Lebanon 30 years ago, so Russia would need to evacuate its citizens."

Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted last month as having said that "a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out". However, the ministry later insisted that Mr Bogdanov was speaking in a personal capacity and Russia had not changed its position on Syria.

Moscow remains opposed to any form of military intervention from the international community, which it fears could be used as cover for regime change.