MOSCOW Russia has sent warships to the Mediterranean Sea in case it needs to evacuate its citizens trapped by the civil war in Syria, a naval source was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
Their departure points to growing concern in Moscow, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, about rebel advances on the Syrian capital Damascus and suggests Russia is pressing ahead quickly with evacuation preparations announced by a diplomat last week.
In a further indication that Moscow believes an evacuation may soon be required, the head of Russia's paratroopers was quoted as saying his units were ready to take part.
The naval source told Interfax news agency that the five vessels, including two armed landing craft and a tanker, had left a Baltic port on Monday and could be in the Mediterranean indefinitely.
"They are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens ... Preparations for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily classified," it quoted the source as saying, adding that any evacuees would be taken to Black Sea ports.
The Defence Ministry declined comment but referred reporters to a statement on its website that said three vessels had left for the region from the Barents Sea port of Severomorsk and would "carry out tasks to protect civilian shipping".
It was not clear if this was the same group of ships the source was referring to, or another group sent to offer protection for any operation involving Syria.
RUSSIA WAVERING ON SYRIA?
Moscow is Syria's biggest arms supplier and has remained an ally of Assad throughout the 21-month-old uprising. It has protected him from three consecutive U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to put pressure on him.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the Kremlin's envoy for Middle East affairs, said last week it was possible that Assad's opponents might win the civil war and that Russia was looking at preparations for a possible evacuation.
His comments were an unusually pessimistic view of the conflict by a Russian official, stirring speculation that Moscow is more concerned about Assad's ability to stay in power than it has admitted in public.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said after Bogdanov's remarks that it had not changed its policy on Syria, and Russian officials sought to dismiss talk of internal differences over policy.
There is a Russian naval maintenance base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus and about 5,300 Russian citizens registered with Russian consular authorities in the country.
But Bogdanov said the majority of Russians there were not registered. Many are Russian women married to Syrian men, and their children.
Interfax quoted Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov, the head of Russia's Airborne Defence Troops, as offering his force's help in any evacuation. "With full responsibility I declare: 'We are ready'," he said.
"The airborne defence troops have experience of such operations, for example evacuating the embassy in Kabul (during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan) ... If we get the order from the defence minister or president, we can carry it out."
(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich)