Russians in Syria return home via Beirut

Lebanese security forces escort Russian nationals who fled Syria as they arrive in a convoy at Beirut international airport on 22 January 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Mohamed Azakir)

Published Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Key Syrian ally Russia began evacuating the country of its citizens on Tuesday as the civil war gathered momentum in the capital Damascus with intense fighting around the international airport.

Meanwhile the UN chief said Tuesday that a diplomatic conclusion to the war seems unlikely.

Four buses carrying about 80 people, mostly women and children, crossed out of the country over land into neighboring Lebanon in the early afternoon. They were bound for Beirut to fly home in two planes that Russia sent.

They apparently were not flown directly home out of Damascus because of the fighting around the airport.

Russian announced the beginning of the evacuation on Monday, saying it would transfer about 100 nationals. The Russian Foreign Ministry says there are tens of thousands of Russians living in Syria. Many of them are Russian women married to Syrian men.

The officials said more evacuations could follow, possibly by both air and sea.

The Russians entered Lebanon at the Masnaa border crossing, where an official from their embassy in Beirut was waiting for them.

Some inside the buses closed the curtains so they would not be seen by journalists waiting at the border. Most refused to comment and those who did speak said only they were going home to visit relatives.

Jodie, an eight-year-old girl traveling from Damascus with her sister and her Syrian father said she was going to Moscow to see her mother, who is Russian. Jodie and her four-year-old sister Nadine spoke briefly to reporters when they got off the bus to get their passports stamped at the border.

"I used to hear the shelling, but I was not scared," said Nadine. "I would close my eyes."

Officials at the Russian Embassy in Damascus said they have several thousand citizens registered as living in Syria. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said some of the people who were being evacuated Tuesday have lost their houses and need Russian government assistance to leave.

The officials downplayed the evacuation effort, denying that they are assisting their nationals' departures from Syria because of the deteriorating security situation.

One of the officials, who identified herself only as the embassy's head of protocol, said the government was simply responding to those who had asked for help in leaving Syria, suggesting they were mostly Russians living in areas where the fighting is fiercest.

"It's their personal desire to leave Syria," the official said. She noted that thousands of Russians were still in Syria.

In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov dismissed reports that the evacuations were the beginning of a Russian exodus from Syria. He told media there Russian planes landed in Beirut to deliver humanitarian aid at the Syrian government's request, and would take home those who wanted to leave.

"There is no plan to take everyone out," Denisov said. "Since the planes have arrived there, and some people with children want to leave, we are ready to take them out."

As the evacuation got under way, Syrian government forces and rebels battled in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere.

International diplomacy has done little to ease Syria's crisis, which according to the UN has claimed more than 60,000 lives since March 2011.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he didn't see "much prospect of resolution" by diplomacy.

At his first news conference of the year, Ban noted the worsening humanitarian conditions inside Syria and for those who have fled to neighboring countries.

For months, special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents the UN and the Arab League, has been pushing for a ceasefire and the formation of a transitional government – with little apparent progress.

Ban said he and Brahimi reached a bleak conclusion after talks Monday.

"Our shared assessment is that we are still a long way from getting the Syrians together," he said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees meanwhile on Tuesday reported that Palestinians who fled Syria's war to neighboring Lebanon are living up to 20 in a room with no water, fresh air or electricity.

Donors needed to do more to help at least 20,000 Palestinians who have already come in and more than 200 who join them every day, the chief of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Filippo Grandi, told Reuters.

Most of the Palestinians crossing Syria's southwestern boundary into Lebanon were living with friends and family in existing Palestinian camps set up to take in refugees after the creation of Israel in 1948, Grandi said.

He had toured the Shatila Palestinian camp and found "the conditions were horrible" for new arrivals.

"The main problem they have is accommodation. They rent small, cramped, very unsanitary premises without running water, without ventilation, without electricity," he said.

"And sometimes you see rooms in which 12, 15, 20 people live in really substandard conditions."

He met one family living in a dark room with only one candle. "I couldn't see who I was speaking to," Grandi said.

UNRWA asked donors for $13 million to cover costs in Lebanon until June but only half has been donated and more may be needed, Grandi said.

Before the revolt, Syria hosted half a million Palestinian refugees.

A third were housed in the densely-built apartment blocks of Damascus' Yarmouk district but most of its residents were forced to flee when fighting erupted there in December.

(AP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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