Russia reports pullout from small base in Syria

Facility's importance has grown as nation continues to support the regime of Assad in its military action against rebel forces

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MOSCOW -- Russia has evacuated all military personnel from its small naval base in Syria, Russian news organizations reported Wednesday.

The base, at Tartus on the Mediterranean, has been Russia's only foothold in the Middle East. Although it is a minor facility, its importance has grown as Russia continues to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in its war against rebel forces.

A 16-ship Russian naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean remains on post, reports said. Cyprus has made its ports available to the Russian fleet if needed.

"We have neither servicemen nor civilians in Syria anymore," the newspaper Vedemosti reported, quoting an unnamed Defense Ministry employee. "Or Russian military instructors assigned to units of the Syrian regular army for that matter."

Russia's troop withdrawal comes despite the fact that the port city of Tartus has remained relatively unscathed by the violence convulsing other major Syria cities.

The government has tightened its grip on the area as Mr. Assad's forces push to secure territory that connects government-held coastal areas with the capital, Damascus. The rebel-held town of Tal Kalakh, about 15 miles southeast of Tartus, fell under complete government control Tuesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A person with knowledge of the decision told Russia's RT television channel that the withdrawal reflected concerns about the risks posed by the ongoing civil war, as well as fear of an incident involving the Russian military that could have larger consequences.

Russia has been flying its citizens out of Syria all spring. Mr. Bogdanov said about 30,000 Russians live throughout the country, some in rebel-held areas.

News of the pullout comes as Russian and U.S. diplomats have been meeting to try to work out arrangements for a new peace conference on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry are to discuss the conference when they meet next week in Brunei.

It does not appear that the Tartus pullout will interfere with Russia's delivery of air-defense and anti-ship missiles to Syria. Mr. Bogdanov again defended the arms shipments as legal and part of an existing contract. Asked when the deliveries would begin, he replied that that was a decision for the "supreme command."

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