Russia sending warships to Syrian port of Tartus in move opposition groups call an inflammatory act of interference


Russia is sending warships to a port in Syria, according to
reports from Moscow. The mission of the amphibious assault vessels
was to protect the country's civilians, it was claimed, but
opponent's of Bashar al-Assad's regime charged that it was an
inflammatory act of interference.

The Russian defence ministry refused to deny a dispatch from the Interfax news agency yesterday, which stated that the Nikolai Filchenko and Caesar Kunilov, capable of carrying up to 300 marines and light tanks, are heading for the port of Tartus, where Russian personnel are based.

President Barack Obama and the Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the G20 summit in Mexico yesterday to discuss the Syrian crisis.

Mr Obama said last night that he and Mr Putin were in agreement on the need for action on ending the Syrian violence. Both men were stony-faced when they received reporters at the start of a bilateral meeting on the fringes of the G20 in Los Cabos, Mexico, and Mr Obama made no mention of the differences between them on the future fate of President Assad.

"We're agreeing that we need to see a cessation of the violence," Mr Obama said adding that they shared the view that a political solution was needed in Syria. He said that they were both pledging to "work with other international actors", including Kofi Annan, to find a resolution. David Cameron was later to echo the concerns of the US in a meeting of his own with the Russian leader.

Other military representatives have been sent by Russia to train Syrians in the use of weapons and, according to Western officials, upgrade the country's air defences and surveillance and intelligence-gathering systems. The Kremlin has denied charges by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it is supplying helicopter gunships to the Assad regime. Major General Vladimir Gradusov, of the Russian air force, said: "We must protect our civilians. We won't abandon Russians and we'll evacuate them from the conflict zone if necessary." Asked whether the air force would provide air support for the navy squadron, he said it will act on orders.

A spokesman for the Pentagon, Captain John Kirby, said there would be grave concern if the Russian ships were taking in weapons or personnel. "The Secretary of Defence [Leon Panetta] remains concerned about any efforts by external countries or external organisations to supply lethal arms to the Syrian regime so that they can turn around and use those to kill their own people."

But he added: "We'd leave it to the Russian ministry of defence to speak to their naval movements and their national security decision-making process. It is not our job to endorse or disapprove of an internal mission like that."

A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for the opposition, described the news of the Russian ships as "very worrying and an act of blatant interference" and demanded that the United Nations investigates the "true role of these ships".

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, demanded that the beleaguered UN observer mission should be replaced by a peacekeeping force.

And members of the rebel forces are said to have made contact with private security companies in the West with the aim of setting up training camps in the Gulf with the encouragement of US politicians.

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