MOSCOW -- A group of Russian warships was en route to the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday with the possible mission to evacuate citizens of their nation from Syria, the Russian news agency Interfax reported Tuesday.
The Baltic Fleet frigate Yaroslav Mudry and landing ships Kaliningrad and Alexander Shabalin, accompanied by tanker Lena and a towboat, were heading to Syria in an operation that "was prepared in certain haste and was kept in grave secret,” a source in the Russian navy told Interfax.
The ships' exact location was not clear late Tuesday.
The news of their sailing came several days after Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Moscow has prepared a contingency plan for evacuating Russian nationals from the rebellion-torn Middle Eastern nation.
“There are thousands of them ... Russian women and children from mixed marriages,” Bogdanov said of the people who might be evacuated. “Half of them support the opposition.”
Bogdanov said that 5,300 Russian nationals are officially registered with Russian consulates in Syria. In addition, there are believed to be more than 100,000 Russians, mostly women and children, living there.
The Russian warships are a support group that could help stabilize the situation in case of an evacuation, which would probably be handled by Russian aircraft, said Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the National Defense monthly journal. But he questioned whether such a withdrawal was imminent.
“There will be no evacuation while [Syrian President Bashar] Assad remains in power in Damascus,” Korotchenko said in an interview Tuesday. “And it is clear now that Moscow will support Assad to the last.”