Russia began evacuating its citizens from Syria today, taking 80 people, mainly women and children, across the border into Lebanon by bus.
Most of the adults on board refused to speak to waiting journalists and those who did said only that they were going home to visit relatives. The group was expected to travel to Beirut and be flown home from there.
Officials at the Russian embassy in Damascus said they have several thousand citizens registered as living in Syria and added that some of those evacuated had lost their houses and needed Russian government assistance to leave.
The officials downplayed the evacuation effort, denying that they are assisting their nationals’ departures from Syria because of the deteriorating security situation. Russia has been President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally since the uprising against him began in March 2011, using its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions in response to the regime’s brutal crackdown.
In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov dismissed reports that the evacuations were the beginning of a Russian exodus. He told media the Russian planes landed in Beirut to deliver humanitarian aid at the Syrian government’s request and would take home those who wanted to leave. “There is no plan to take everyone out,” Mr Denisov said. “Just some people with children.”