Russia sends conflicting signals on Syria ships

MOSCOW Fri Apr 13, 2012 9:24am EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian news agency reported on Friday that Moscow had decided to keep a warship on patrol off Syria for the foreseeable future, but a military source said Russia's naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean had "nothing to do" with Syria.

The conflicting signals came during a fragile ceasefire in Syria, which buys Russian weapons and has been shielded from U.N. Security Council condemnation over its bloody clampdown on its opponents by Russian vetoes.

Syria hosts a maintenance and supply facility that is Russia's sole naval base outside the ex-Soviet Union, but warships call there only occasionally and Russian naval activity near Syria has been seen as a show of support for the government.

The destroyer Smetlivy is plying waters off Syria now and will be replaced by another Russian warship next month, the state-run RIA news agency reported on Friday, citing an unidentified Defense Ministry source.

"A decision has been made to have Russia navy ships close to Syria's shores on a permanent basis," it quoted the source as saying.

However, a Russian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters by telephone that Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean had "nothing to do with" Syria.

A Defense Ministry spokesman declined to comment on the RIA report. He said Russian warships conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden are sometimes in the eastern Mediterranean and call in at the Tartus facility.

Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syria for its crackdown, that has lasted for more than a year, but has vocally supported U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace efforts, which have led to a fragile ceasefire that began on Thursday.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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