Middle East

Evacuation move signals Russia losing faith in Assad

Russian Navy destroyer Smetlivy sets sail in the Bosphorus in Istanbul July 11, 2012. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

MOSCOW: Russia is sending two planes to Lebanon to evacuate Russians from war-torn Syria, authorities said Monday, a move that appears to reflect Moscow’s increasing doubts about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ability to stay in power.

The announcement came as the opposition National Coalition failed for a second time to form a provisional government, while a car bomb exploded in a town in the province of Hama, killing at least 30 people, according to initial reports.

An Emergency Situations Ministry source told ITAR-TASS news agency that Russian citizens who wish to return home were already in Lebanon.

“According to initial information, they do not exceed 150 people. Mainly women and children,” the source said. “There will be medics and psychologists on board.”

Russia has been Assad’s main ally since the start of the conflict in March 2011, using its veto power at the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions.

But it has recently begun to distance itself from the Syrian ruler, signaling it is resigned to him losing power. President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia realizes the need for change in Syria.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said that it has contingency plans in place to evacuate thousands of its nationals from Syria, and that both planes and sea vessels could be used. Most are Russian women married to Syrians. Only a few thousand have registered with Russian consular officials.

A squadron of Russian navy ships is currently in the Mediterranean for a planned exercise near Syrian shores later this month. Military officials said earlier that the exercise would simulate both the landing of marines and taking people on board from the shore.

Separately, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission had barely brought a “glimmer of hope” in ending the bloodshed, and urged U.N. action to enforce a cease-fire. “All contacts [with the warring sides and international actors] made by Brahimi have thus far not yielded a glimmer of hope to end this crisis,” Elaraby told leaders meeting for an Arab League economic summit in Riyadh.

The head of the 22-member bloc urged Arab leaders to call on “the U.N. Security Council for an immediate meeting and to issue a resolution enforcing a cease-fire to stop the bloodbath.” He also demanded an “international monitoring force to make sure that fighting has stopped.”

According to U.N. figures, more than 60,000 people have so far been killed.

Syria slammed Brahimi as biased and described his mission as “useless.”

“It is clear that Brahimi is now out of the loop for the solution for Syria. He has taken sides; he is not a mediator,” wrote the pro-regime daily Al-Watan Sunday. “Brahimi is incapable of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis.”

The veteran Algerian troubleshooter had criticized as “one-sided” a proposal by Assad to end the crisis.

Violence claimed more than 80 lives, according to activists, topped by a car bomb which killed more than 30, both civilians and pro-regime militiamen, in the Hama town of Selemiya, populated mostly by Ismaili Muslims.

A high-ranking regime official confirmed to AFP that dozens were killed in the attack, which the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said targeted a building used by the paramilitaries, or “shabbiha.”

Citing medical sources, the Observatory said there were civilians among the dead and the number of fatalities could rise well over 50 with dozens wounded or in critical condition.

Elsewhere, warplanes launched raids on two towns east of Damascus, while the army shelled and deployed new reinforcements to the rebel-held town of Daraya as part of its bid to quell the insurgency in the outskirts of the Syrian capital once and for all.

A powerful explosion also rocked the upscale Damascus suburb of Dummar, the Observatory said, adding the blast caused an unknown number of deaths.

Activists reported a helicopter raid in the northeastern town of Tabqa that killed eight people including two women and three children, the Observatory said.

A man in a Turkish border town was hit in the head by a stray bullet fired during clashes between Syrian rebels and Kurdish gunmen. He became the third person in the past week to be wounded in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar by bullets from Ras al-Ain, a Syrian town across the border.

Fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which leans in favor of Syria’s government, have battled Syrian rebels sporadically since November to control Ras al-Ain, with a new round of fighting breaking out this month.

Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Freij vowed the army would keep chasing rebels all over the country “until it achieves victory and thwarts the conspiracy that Syria is being subjected to.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 22, 2013, on page 1.




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