Russia sending planes to Syria to deliver aid, pick up citizens

MOSCOW Mon Feb 18, 2013 9:19am EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will send two planes to Syria on Tuesday to deliver 46 metric tons (50.7 tons) of humanitarian aid and pick up citizens that want to leave the war-torn country, an emergencies ministry spokeswoman was reported as saying on Monday.

Russia has been one of the biggest foreign protectors of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but in recent months Moscow has given signs it may be preparing for his possible defeat.

The planes carrying tents, power generators, furniture and 11 metric tons of food will fly to the port city of Latakia in northwestern Syria, emergencies ministry spokeswoman Irina Rossius said, according to Itar-Tass news agency.

She said that as well as Russian citizens, the planes would pick up citizens from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a regional group of post-Soviet states.

"Citizens of Russia, as well as CIS countries, who want to fly out of that country, will be able to leave Syria on the planes," she said.

Moscow has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have increased pressure on Damascus to end the violence which has seen nearly 70,000 people killed in an uprising that is almost two years old.

In January, the Kremlin sent two flights to evacuate 77 citizens from Syria, a signal that Russia may be preparing for the possibility of Assad's fall.

Russia's Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted in December as saying Syrian rebels were gaining ground and might win. However Russia's Foreign Ministry put out a statement the following day saying that, despite Bogdanov's comments, Moscow's policy on Syria had not changed.

Russia says that Assad's departure must not be a precondition for negotiations to settle the conflict.

(Reporting By Thomas Grove; Editing by Pravin Char)

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