Russia eyes Syria evacuation as rebels take Damascus district

Tue Dec 18, 2012 11:27am EST
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By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia sent warships to the Mediterranean to prepare a potential evacuation of its citizens from Syria, a Russian news agency said on Tuesday, a sign President Bashar al-Assad's key ally is worried about rebel advances now threatening even the capital.

Moscow acted a day after insurgents waging a 21-month-old uprising obtained a possible springboard for a thrust into Damascus by seizing the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, an urban zone just 2 miles from the heart of the city, activists said.

The Syrian opposition has scored significant military and diplomatic gains in recent weeks, capturing several army installations across Syria and securing formal recognition from Western and Arab states for its new coalition.

Despite those rebel successes, bloodshed has been rising with more than 40,000 killed in a movement that began as peaceful street protests but has transformed into civil war.

Assad's pivotal allies have largely stood behind him and Iran, believed to be his main bankroller in the conflict, said there were no signs of Assad was on the verge of being toppled.

"The Syrian army and the state machine are working smoothly," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in Moscow on Tuesday.

But Russia, Assad's primary arms supplier, has appeared to waver with contradictory statements over the past week stressing opposition to Assad stepping down and airing concerns about a possible rebel victory.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted unnamed naval sources on Tuesday as saying that two armed landing craft, a tanker and an escort vessel had left a Baltic port for the Mediterranean Sea. Russia has a naval maintenance base in the Syrian port of Tartus, around 250 km (155 miles) northwest of Damascus.   Continued...

Free Syrian Army fighters from Al-Farooq battalion celebrate after the fighters said they fought and defeated government troops in Halfaya, near Hama December 18, 2012. REUTERS/Samer Al-Hamwi/Shaam News Network/Handout