Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Russia denies large Syria evacuation amid fighting

BEIRUT, Lebanon — 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 Assad raged around the capital Damascus and in the north of the country, killing at least 60 people, including six members of a family who died in a government rocket attack, activists said.

Despite the escalating violence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to play down the significance of the 77 Russian citizens who returned to Moscow on two flights Wednesday. He told reporters that about 1,000 Russians residing in Syria, mostly women married to Syrian men, contacted consular officials about leaving. He said no large-scale evacuation of the tens of thousands of Russians still in the country was planned.

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

Russia has recently started to distance itself from Assad. 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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