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 from Syria.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also sought to play down the significance of evacuation of 77 of its citizens who had fled Syria and were flown back to Moscow on Wednesday. He told a news conference that about a thousand 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. The U.N. says over 60,000 people have died in the civil war so far.
Lavrov said the 77 Russians who left Syria took buses to Beirut, from where they flew home overnight on board the two planes provided by Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry.
"As for the Embassy, we proceed from the assumption that there should be no non-essential staff there," Lavrov said. "Families have left long ago, but the Embassy is continuing to function in full. There are no other plans yet, or rather we have plans for any situation but there is no talk yet about implementing them."
Some observers saw the evacuation of 77 Russians as a possible start of what could become a difficult and dangerous operation to rescue tens of thousands of 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.
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."