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.
"There are no other plans yet, or rather we have plans for any country in case of worsening of the situation there, but there is no talk yet about implementing them," he said.
Russia recently started to distance itself from Assad, and a top diplomat acknowledged last month that the rebels might win the civil war.
Speaking about the two planes that arrived Wednesday, Lavrov said that Russia used them to deliver humanitarian supplies to Syria and used the occasion to fly back some Russians who wanted to leave.
"We have notified them that we can give them a ride home if they want," he said.
Lavrov said that Russian military maneuvers, which will be conducted later this month by a squadron of Russian navy ships off Syria's coast, are part of a regular combat training, and their presence in the Mediterranean, "helps to stabilize the situation." The squadron includes four landing vessels capable of carrying hundreds of marines each.
Rushana Vidova, who left the country with her Syrian husband Ali, said upon arrival at Moscow's Domodedovo airport she is grateful to "Russia and all who helped us."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the overnight evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria "speaks to the continued deterioration of the security situation, and the violence that Assad is leading against his own people."
Associated Press writers Oleg Yuriev in Moscow and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.