Eighty Russians fleeing Syria violence depart for Moscow
About 80 Russian nationals, mainly women and children, boarded two planes in Beirut bound for Moscow on Tuesday, after having fled war-torn Syria, dpa reported.
The move signaled to many that the Kremlin, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, may now believe it unlikely that the Syrian regime can survive the now 22-month-old conflict.
However, Lebanese media quoted officials at the Russian embassy in Damascus as downplaying the event's importance.
"This was not an evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria, but it came upon the request of some of its citizens who asked to leave Syria after their homes were affected by the violence," the embassy said.
According to Lebanese airport officials, the Russian embassy requested authorities to ban photographers and television networks from going inside the airport when its citizens were present.
Moscow said Monday it would evacuate about 100 of its citizens from Syria. They left through Lebanon because of the fierce fighting between opposition rebels and government troops near Damascus airport.
Roads leading to Syria's Tartus port, the only naval base that Russia has outside the former Soviet Union, were also not secure enough to facilitate the transfer of the Russians.
Russia has repeatedly blocked UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime since the uprising erupted in 2011.
In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the Syrian government and the armed opposition remain far apart, making the search for a political solution difficult.
"We remain a long way from getting the government and opposition together to make the key decisions about the country's future that only Syrians can make," Ban told the General Assembly.
Ban said he will attend an international conference in Kuwait on January 30 to raise funds to assist Syrian refugees.
Ban's words came as a team from seven UN humanitarian agencies, led by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Operations Director John Ging, concluded a four-day visit to Syria.
"Extensive needs were witnessed in terms of food, healthcare and access to clean water, and that children have been particularly affected by the fighting and urgently need psychosocial support and access to schools," Ging told reporters in Beirut.
On the ground, at least 23 soldiers and pro-regime militiamen were killed and dozens wounded, in three days of fierce clashes in the central province of Homs, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Tuesday.
Warplanes and tanks bombarded rebel strongholds in Damascus, as rebels clashed with government forces inside the Al-Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, the Observatory said.
The camp witnessed heavy fighting clashes in December that prompted half of the camp's 150,000 residents to flee to safer areas in and outside Syria.
The group also reported that at least 56 fighters were killed over six days of fighting in the Kurdish majority city of Ras al-Ain, on the Turkish border.