MOSCOW (AP) — Russia announced for the first time Wednesday that it has evacuated families of its diplomats in Syria some time ago but said it is not planning a large-scale evacuation of tens of thousands of its citizens living in Syria.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also sought to play down the significance of pulling 77 Russian citizens out of Syria, saying that the two flights that brought them back to Moscow on Wednesday are not the start of a bigger rescue effort as some suspected.
He told a news conference that about a thousand out of tens of thousands of Russians residing in Syria contacted consular officials to express their interest in leaving the country, but there is no immediate plan for a large-scale evacuation.
Russia has been the main protector of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shielding him from the United Nations sanctions over his crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011. It also continued to provide Syria with weapons even as the uprising morphed into a civil war, adding to massive arsenals of Soviet and Russian weapons Damascus has received over previous decades.
The U.N. says over 60,000 people have died in the conflict so far.
The 77 Russians who left Syria took buses to Beirut on Tuesday, from where they flew home overnight on board the two planes provided by Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry.
Some observers saw their evacuation marked a possible start of what could become a difficult and dangerous operation to rescue Russians living in Syria as rebels gain momentum in their fight to oust Assad's regime. Most of them are Russian woman married to Syrian men.
Lavrov said that Russian diplomats families "have left long ago," without giving any other details, but said that the Embassy is working normally.