A Russian girl waves to photographers at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing on January 22, 2013
A Russian girl waves to photographers at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing on January 22, 2013. Dozens of Russians fleeing the violence in Syria arrived back in Moscow on Wednesday, in the first operation organised by the Russian authorities to help its nationals escape. © - AFP
A Russian girl waves to photographers at the Masnaa Lebanese border crossing on January 22, 2013
AFP
Last updated: January 23, 2013

First Russians return to Moscow after fleeing Syria

Dozens of Russians fleeing the violence in Syria returned to Moscow on Wednesday, in the first operation organised by the Russian authorities to help its nationals escape the bloodshed.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov however denied the assistance is the start of a mass evacuation of the tens of thousands of Russian citizens still living Syria amid the conflict between rebels and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Two planes owned by the emergencies ministry carrying 77 people -- mainly women and children -- fleeing Syria touched down at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on a flight from the Lebanese capital Beirut, the ministry said.

"It's very dangerous there. Rockets. Planes. Tanks," one returning man named as Albert Omar, wrapped up in an emergencies ministry coat to cope with the severe temperature change, told state television. "The last three months were horrendous."

"It had become impossible to live there. There is no money. No work. We have lost everything," said another Russian woman who was not named.

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

The Russian citizens arrived in Moscow from Beirut on board two planes after travelling to Beirut from Syria by road.

"Most of those brought back are Russian women who married Syrians and Palestinians as well as their children," the emergencies ministry said in a statement.

"These are people from different regions of Syria who were left homeless and without means to live as a result of the conflict," said the ministry, adding that psychologists were on hand at the airport to help those returning.

The foreign ministry said Moscow could send more planes to Beirut to pick up Russian citizens fleeing the Syria violence if required.

"If needed, the foreign ministry in cooperation with the emergencies ministry will continue to work on the return of Russian citizens from Syria," it said in a statement.

Lavrov on Wednesday denied however that Russia was planning any full-scale evacuation of its citizens.

"We have not started an evacuation so it would be hard to have a more widescale one," Lavrov told reporters, denying that the help given to Russians to flee by plane could be termed an evacuation.

He said the emergencies ministry planes that flew to Beirut had been carrying humanitarian aid for Syria and had simply offered the option of taking any Russians back if they so desired.

Around 1,000 Russian women initially expressed interest but in the end fewer than 100 took up the offer, he said.

Lavrov said that Russia's embassy in Damascus was working normally, even though contingency plans were in place as with any country in the region.

"We are not talking about activating these (plans)," he said. He said that Russia had already withdrawn the families of diplomats.

According to the RIA Novosti news agency, 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.

Any evacuation of such a large number of nationals would likely require large naval vessels rather than planes. Russia could employ its Soviet-era naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus which it still maintains.

The Soviet Union built up close ties with the secular Arab nationalist regime of Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad, and many Syrians studied in the USSR where they met Russian wives.

Should the Assad regime be ousted, those Russians left in Syria may feel vulnerable given their government's acrimonious relationship with the rebels fighting the Damascus government.

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