Russians flee Syrian conflict on planes from Beirut
22 January 2013
Scores of Russians are to be flown home after fleeing the violence in Syria - but Russia insists it is not the start of a mass evacuation.
Buses carrying the Russians have crossed the Lebanese border heading for Beirut airport, Lebanese media reported on Tuesday.
Moscow has been one of President Bashar al-Assad's closest allies during the conflict in Syria.
But it has admitted making contingency plans for a possible future evacuation.
Such an operation would almost certainly involve the Russian navy, says the BBC's Steve Rosenberg in Moscow.
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Russia's reputation among the opposition is bad since we officially support Damascus. So, Moscow is showing commendable forward-thinking”
End Quote Aleksey Malashenko Moscow Carnegie Centre
Russia has not renounced its support for Mr Assad, but has acknowledged he may not win.
The conflict continued to exact a heavy toll on Tuesday, with the UK-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying a preliminary count put the dead at about 60.
That included 23 civilians, among them five children. There were also reports of a further seven children being killed, the group said. Seventeen rebels, a soldier who had defected and 18 regular soldiers also died, it added.
The Observatory's reports cannot be independently verified.
Syria and Russia have long had close ties and there are thought to be thousands of Russian citizens living and working in Syria.
BBC Arabic in Beirut was told by a Russian diplomat that 84 Russians would be on board the flights.
A Russian diplomat told the AFP news agency: "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 or any clashes.
"We are simply helping people who have gone to the Russian consulate in Damascus requesting assistance," the unnamed diplomat said.
He said, however, that the planes scheduled to leave on Tuesday and Wednesday would probably not be the last.
"It will be an ongoing operation. Whenever enough people request assistance at the consulate in Damascus, we will organise for new planes."
'Far from angels'
Russia's state-controlled Channel One TV said most of the passengers were women and children, and there would be doctors and psychologists aboard the flights, which are provided by Russia's emergencies ministry.
Aleksey Malashenko, a member of the research council at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, said Russia was trying to protect its citizens who might be the victim of revenge attacks if the anti-Assad opposition prevails in the war.
"Assad's regime is tottering, and those who intend to take his place are far from being angels," he said.
"Russia's reputation among the opposition is bad since we officially support Damascus. So, Moscow is showing commendable forward-thinking by evacuating Russians."