MASNAA, Lebanon (AP) — Russia began evacuating its citizens from Syria on Tuesday, the strongest indication yet that Moscow sees President Bashar Assad's grip on power slipping nearly two years into the conflict.
Four buses carrying about 80 people, mostly women and children, crossed into Lebanon in the early afternoon at the Masnaa border crossing, where an official from the Russian Embassy in Beirut was waiting for them.
The development came after Russian officials announced in Moscow on Monday that about 100 of their citizens in Syria will be taken out overland to Lebanon and flown home from there.
The land route was presumably chosen because of renewed fighting near the Damascus airport. The officials also said thousands more could follow — many of them Russian women married to Syrians — and that later evacuations could be by both air and sea.
Russia has been Assad's main ally since the uprising against him began in March 2011, using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions over the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent.
Assad has dismissed calls that he step down, claiming that the country is fighting Islamic extremists and terrorists. He has proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution, but the opposition insists he can play no role in a resolution to the conflict.
Last month, Russia started distancing itself from Assad, with President Vladimir Putin saying that he understands Syria needs change and that he was not protecting the Syrian ruler.
Some of the Russians inside the buses crossing into Lebanon Tuesday closed the curtains so they would not be seen by journalists waiting at the border. Most of the adults 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."
The group was expected to travel to the Lebanese capital and board two planes that Russia sent to Beirut to take them home.
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," said the official. She noted that thousands of Russians were still in Syria.
In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov dismissed reports that Tuesday's 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."
Syrian conflict began as peaceful protests against Assad's rule but turned into civil war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives, according to a recent United Nations estimate.
As the evacuation got under way, Syrian government forces and rebels battled in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in the country on Tuesday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes between opposition fighters and troops were concentrated in the areas around the capital, including along the road linking it to the international airport.
Persistent fighting along the airport road has prompted regional and international airlines to suspend flights to Damascus in recent weeks, although Syrian officials maintain that the airport facility remains open.
No casualties were immediately reported in Tuesday's fighting.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.