Russia claims warships were sent to protect Syria civilians
Russia is sending warships to a port in Syria, according to reports from Moscow.
The mission of the amphibious assault vessels was to protect the country's civilians, it was claimed, but opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime charged that it was an inflammatory act of interference.
The Russian defence ministry refused to deny a dispatch from the Interfax news agency yesterday, which stated that the Nikolai Filchenko and Caesar Kunilov, capable of carrying up to 300 marines and light tanks, are heading for the port of Tartus, where Russian personnel are based.
Other military representatives have been sent by Russia to train Syrians in the use of weapons and, according to Western officials, upgrade the country's air defences and surveillance and intelligence-gathering systems.
The Kremlin has denied charges by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that it is supplying helicopter gunships to the Assad regime.
Major General Vladimir Gradusov, of the Russian airforce, said: "We must protect our civilians.
"We won't abandon Russians and we'll evacuate them from the conflict zone if necessary."
Asked whether the air force would provide air support for the navy squadron, he said it would act on orders.
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Captain John Kirby, said there would be grave concern if the Russian ships were taking in weapons or personnel.
"The secretary of defence [Leon Panetta] remains concerned about any efforts by external countries or external organisations to supply lethal arms to the Syrian regime so that they can turn around and use those to kill their own people."
However, he added: "I think we'd leave it to the Russian ministry of defence to speak to their naval movements and their national security decision-making process. It is not our job to endorse or disapprove of an internal mission like that."
A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for the opposition, described the news of the Russian ships as "very worrying and an act of blatant interference" and demanded that the United Nations investigates the "true role of these ships".
Barack Obama was due to meet Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Mexico yesterday to discuss the Syrian crisis.
It came as the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, demanded that the beleaguered UN observer mission should be replaced by a peacekeeping force.
Meanwhile, members of the rebel forces are said to have made contact with private security companies in the West with the aim of setting up training camps in the Gulf with the encouragement of US politicians.
Abdulrazak Rashid, an official with the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition group, said: "It has become obvious to us that we need to receive proper training. Too many of our men are getting killed because we lack this training. This is for self-defence, nothing more, and there are political figures who support us." (© Independent News Service)