- Associated Press - Monday, June 18, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Two Russian navy ships are completing preparations to sail to Syria with a unit of marines on a mission to protect Russian citizens and the nation’s base there, a news report said Monday. The deployment appears to reflect Moscow’s growing concern about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future.

The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Russian naval official as saying that the two amphibious landing vessels, Nikolai Filchenkov and Caesar Kunikov, soon will head to the Syrian port of Tartus, but it didn’t give a precise date.

The official said the ships will carry an unspecified number of marines to protect Russians in Syria and evacuate some equipment from Tartus if necessary.

Interfax said each of the ships is capable of carrying 150 marines and a dozen tanks.

It also quoted a deputy Russian air force chief as saying that Russia will give the necessary protection to its citizens in Syria.

“We must protect our citizens,” Maj. Gen. Vladimir Gradusov was quoted by Interfax as saying. “We won’t abandon the Russians and evacuate them from the conflict zone if necessary.”

Asked whether the air force would provide air support for the navy squadron, Gen. Gradusov said they will act on orders.

The Defense Ministry had no immediate comment, and an official at the Russian Black Sea fleet declined to comment.

Tartus is Russia‘s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union, serving Russian navy ships on missions to the Mediterranean and hosting an unspecified number of military personnel.

Russia also has an unspecified number of military advisers teaching Syrians how to use Russian weapons, which make up the bulk of Syrian arsenals.

Syria is Russia‘s last remaining ally in the Middle East and has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons industries for the past four decades, acquiring billions of dollars worth of combat jets, helicopters, missiles, armored vehicles and other military gear.

Russia has shielded Mr. Assad’s regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown on protests. Moscow also has continued to provide Syria with arms despite Western calls for a halt in supplies.

Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests against Mr. Assad’s autocratic regime. But a ferocious government crackdown led many to take up arms, and the conflict is now an armed insurgency.

Russia has criticized Mr. Assad for slow reforms and heavy-handed use of force but has strongly opposed any sanctions or foreign interference in Syrian affairs.

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