Relieved Russians return home after fleeing Syria violence

Wed Jan 23, 2013 1:49am EST
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By Thomas Grove

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dozens of Russians arrived home on Wednesday after fleeing Syria, relieved to be escaping the deprivation and horror of civil war but worried about an uncertain future back home.

"The Free Syrian Army is getting closer. We've been left without money, without light, without water," Natasha Yunis, who ran a beauty salon in her adopted home of Damascus after meeting her Syrian husband, said of rebel advances on the capital.

"A bomb exploded near our house ... The children hid. Of course it was horrible," said Yunis, giving her age as about 60.

Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main protector in an uprising against his rule, but its Middle East affairs envoy was quoted as saying last month that the rebels could defeat Assad and that Moscow was preparing evacuation plans in case they were needed.

It organized two flights to evacuate 77 men, women and children from the Middle East country, where the United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in 22 months of bloodshed. Both flights arrived in Moscow early on Wednesday.

The evacuations are the strongest signal yet that Russia may be preparing for the possibility of Assad's fall, but Moscow insists the operation is not the start of a mass exodus of tens of thousands of Russian citizens living in Syria.

Alfred Omar, 57, a resident of Syria married to a Russian woman and dressed in an jacket from Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said Moscow's policies had begun to threaten its own citizens inside the country. His lower lip trembled as he spoke.

"It's dangerous there for Russians. If the Free Syrian Army understands that a person is Russian, they'll immediately cut off their head, because they (are seen to) support Assad's regime," he said.   Continued...

A woman hugs her daughter, who was a passenger on a Russian Emergencies Ministry flight from Beirut, after her arrival at Moscow's Domodedovo airport early January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky