Envoys' families long ago left Syria, Russia says

Posted: January 24, 2013

BEIRUT - Russia acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that it pulled the families of its diplomats out of Syria long ago, and rejected suggestions that the recent evacuation of dozens of its citizens marks the start of a larger rescue effort.

Inside Syria, fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad raged around the capital Damascus and in the north of the country, killing at least 60 people, including six members of a single family who died in a government rocket attack, activists said.

Russia, a close Damascus ally for decades, has continued to be the main protector of the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian uprising, shielding it from U.N. sanctions over a bloody crackdown.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to play down the significance of the 77 Russian citizens who fled Syria a day earlier and returned to Moscow on two flights on Wednesday. He told reporters that about 1,000 Russians residing in Syria, mostly women married to Syrians, contacted consular officials to express their interest in leaving. He said that no large-scale evacuation of the tens of thousands of Russians still in the country was immediately planned.

However, Lavrov for the first time mentioned that families of Russian diplomats "left long ago." He did not provide further details, but said that the embassy in Damascus was functioning normally.

Russia has started to distance itself from Assad, and a top diplomat acknowledged last month that the rebels might win the war. But the evacuation was the strongest sign yet of Moscow's waning confidence in the ability of Assad to hold onto power.

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