Dozens of Russians leave Syria as Moscow steps up evacuation efforts

Dozens of Russians left Syria on Tuesday on a plane sent by Moscow as the navy despatched four warships to the Mediterranean reportedly for a possible larger evacuation.

Moscow, which unlike other world powers still keeps close ties with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, also announced it would host Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem for talks on the crisis next week.

Observers are watching for any hints of Russia planning a full-scale evacuation of its citizens, which would be seen as a tacit admission from Moscow that Assad is doomed in his fight against rebels.

Two emergencies ministry planes carrying humanitarian aid flew from Moscow to the Syrian port city of Latakia on Tuesday and took back any Russians wanting to leave on their return trip.

Ninety-nine Russians and other ex-Soviet citizens, including women and children, took up the offer to fly to Moscow on one of the planes, the emergencies ministry said. It was not clear if the second plane would also carry people on its return.

Meanwhile, the defence ministry said Russia is sending four more warships to the Mediterranean Sea to join an escort ship and smaller vessels that are already on duty in the region.

The defence ministry said in a statement to Russian news agencies that the ships would be on "military service" but gave no further details.

But a military source quoted by the state RIA Novosti news agency said their main task could be taking part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

"Even though the tasks of the warships have not been announced, it can be assumed that given the development of the situation in the region their main job will be taking part in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria," said the source.

The Russian emergencies ministry Ilyushin-62 and Ilyushin-76 planes carried over 40 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Syria, a ministry statement said.

The aid consisted of electrical equipment, bedding, tents as well as foodstuffs like fish and milk conserves as well as sugar.

"Citizens of Russia and the (ex-Soviet grouping) CIS wanting to leave can leave Syria on these planes," the ministry said.

It said a hotline had been set up for Russians who were thinking of leaving Syria, with psychologists on hand to take the calls.

According to Russian media, 8,000 Russians are registered with the consulate in Syria but there could be as many as 25,000 Russian women who have married Syrians living in the country.

Tuesday's voluntary evacuation of Russian citizens was the first directly from the territory of Syria itself.

In a similar operation last month, Moscow arranged to evacuate 77 people fleeing Syria on two planes flying from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon.

Latakia is a Mediterranean port city whose region is dominated by the Alawite community, the Muslim sect to which Assad, his family and much of the regime's elite belong.

The city remains under government control after almost two years of conflict between Assad's forces and rebels that according to the United Nations has left 70,000 dead.

Latakia has been seen by some analysts as a possible last redoubt for Assad, should the tables turn against him in the conflict, or even as the capital of a future possible breakaway Alawite statelet.

But Assad has said he is confident his troops will win the conflict ravaging Syria, according to comments published this week in Lebanon's pro-Damascus newspaper As-Safir.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Muallem will be in Moscow on February 25 but added that no date had yet been set for separate talks with the Syrian opposition.