Dozens of Russians fleeing the violence in Syria returned to Moscow on Wednesday, in the first operation organized by the Russian authorities to help its nationals escape the bloodshed.
Two planes owned by the emergencies ministry carrying 77 people fleeing Syria touched down at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on a flight from the Lebanese capital Beirut early in the morning, the ministry said.
Russia has however vehemently denied that the assistance is the start of a mass evacuation of the thousands of Russian citizens still believed to be living in conflict-torn Syria.
“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.
“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.
The Russian citizens arrived in Moscow from Beirut on board two planes -- a Yak-42 and an Il-76. They had earlier travelled 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, saying that they had all approached the Russian consulate in Damascus for help.
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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday denied however that Russia was planning a 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.
He 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.
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.
Russian diplomats have said that Moscow could send more planes to Beirut to pick up Russian citizens fleeing the Syria violence if required.