Russian warships 'ready to sail for Syria'

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: June 2012 Mr Putin remains one of Syria's strongest allies

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Two Russian navy ships and their crew of marines are ready to set sail to Syria if needed, according to an unconfirmed Russian media report.

The two amphibious vessels could dock at the port of Tartus, where Russia has a naval base, Interfax reports.

The report, citing an unidentified naval command officer, has not been confirmed by official Russian sources.

The ships' mission is understood to be both to protect Russian citizens and remove equipment if necessary.

The ships, crews and marines "are capable, in case of need, to provide security for Russian citizens and remove property from the logistics facility in Tartus," Interfax quoted the unnamed officer as saying.

Protection

A deputy Russian air force chief was also quoted as saying that Russia was ready to provide the protection needed to its citizens in Syria.

"We must protect our citizens," Maj Gen Vladimir Gradusov was quoted as saying by the news agency.

"We won't abandon the Russians and [will] evacuate them from the conflict zone if necessary."

The two vessels are capable of operating at sea and on land, and according to AFP, one - the Tsezar Kunikov - can carry 150 landing troops and various armaments including tanks, while the other - the Nikolai Filchenkov - can carry up to 1,500 tonnes of cargo and equipment.

The port of Tartus is Russia's only naval base beyond the former Soviet Union.

It provides a base for ships on missions to the Mediterranean as well as those on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, where Russia co-operates with Nato efforts.

The BBC's defence correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, says that, if confirmed, the deployment of the landing ships and their marines suggests that the Russians are taking prudent precautions in the event of the Syrian regime collapsing.

He says it is unclear to what extent this move by Moscow is simply precautionary, or how far it may signal a shift in attitude towards the Syrian regime.

External pressure

Russia, from whom Damascus purchases large quantities of weapons and defence equipment, remains one of Syria's most steadfast allies.

Although he has been critical of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a uprising which has resulted in 10,000 deaths, the Russian president has remained opposed to foreign intervention.

Vladimir Putin is expected to discuss Syria with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Mexico later on Monday.

Along with China - which currently holds the UN Security Council's rotating presidency - Russia has twice blocked UN resolutions critical of Damascus.

Both countries argue that pushing the government from power using external pressure is unacceptable.

According to AFP quoting the French foreign ministry, the UN Security Council will on Tuesday examine possible next steps for Syria after the UN's monitoring mission in Syria was suspended.

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