Russia steps up Syria evacuation efforts for nationals

Russia on Tuesday sent two planes to Syria to pick up Russians wanting to leave the conflict-torn country as the navy dispatched four warships to the Mediterranean, reportedly for a possible larger evacuation.

Two emergencies ministry planes carrying humanitarian aid for Syria took off from Moscow for the port city of Latakia and would take any Russians wanting to leave on their flight back, the ministry said.

Meanwhile the defense ministry said Russia is sending four more warships to the Mediterranean Sea to join an escort ship and smaller vessels already on duty in the region.

Observers are watching for any hints of Russia planning a full-scale evacuation of its citizens which would be seen as a tacit admission from Moscow that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is doomed in its fight against rebels.

The defense ministry said in a statement to Russian news agencies that the ships would be on "military service" but gave no further details.

But an unnamed military source quoted by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said their main task could be taking part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

"Even though the tasks of the warships has not been announced, it can be assumed that given the development of the situation in the region their main job will be taking part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria," said the source.

The Russian emergencies ministry Ilyushin-62 and Ilyushin-76 planes were carrying over 40 tons of humanitarian aid and would be ready to evacuate any Russians wanting to leave the country, a ministry statement said.

The aid consists of electrical equipment, bedding, tents as well as foodstuffs.

"Citizens of Russia and the (ex-Soviet grouping) CIS wanting to leave can leave Syria on these planes," the ministry said, adding that the departure from Latakia back to Moscow was planned later Tuesday.

It said a hotline had been set up for Russians who were thinking of leaving Syria with psychologists on hand to take the calls.

The Interfax news agency quoted sources in the Russian community in Syria as saying that 150 Russians and other ex-Soviet citizens could be flown out on the planes.

The voluntary evacuation would be the second such operation organized by Russia after it took out 77 people fleeing Syria on two planes flying from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon last month.

However it would be the first directly from the territory of Syria itself.

According to Russian media, 8,000 Russians are registered with the consulate in Syria but there could be as many as 25,000 Russian women who have married Syrians living in the country.

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