A Russian military fuel tanker with a squad of marines arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus, RIA Novosti’s Arabic-language service said, citing unidentified Russian navy officials.
The marines, specialists in anti-terrorist operations, traveled aboard the Iman, which is based at Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, Ukraine, the state-run Russian news service reported.
Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said the men are guards needed to protect the tanker. Reports of Russian warships docking in Syria are “fables,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow today, in remarks broadcast on state television.
“There are no Russian military vessels carrying out missions off the shores of Syria,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement posted on its website late Monday. The tanker has a civilian crew and is charged with supplying Russian ships conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, it said.
A year of violence in Syria since President Bashar al-Assad started a crackdown on an anti-government uprising has claimed more than 8,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates. Veto-wielding UN Security Council members Russia and China have blocked Western and Arab demands for Assad’s resignation, arguing for talks between the Syrian leader and his opponents.
The Iman replaced the Ivan Bubnov tanker, which was sent to Syria to “demonstrate a Russian presence” and prepare for the possible evacuation of Russians from Syria, the Moscow-based Interfax news service said, citing unidentified Black Sea Fleet officials.
The Syrian leader’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for three decades until his death in 2000, was a close ally of the Soviet Union. Russia has maintained a servicing point for naval vessels at Tartus, where it stations about 600 personnel, since the Cold War, the Izvestia newspaper said last year.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry late yesterday called on Syria to ensure a daily pause in fighting to provide access for humanitarian workers. The ministry issued the statement after Lavrov held talks with International Committee of the Red Cross head Jakob Kellenberger in Moscow.
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