Top envoy says airlift of Russians from Syria is not an evacuation
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MOSCOW -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow had no intention of beginning an evacuation of its citizens in Syria. He also defended a controversial ban on American adoptions, citing the reported abuse and death of some Russian children adopted by families in the United States.
Mr. Lavrov, speaking at an annual news conference summing up the year in foreign policy, said Russia has not received similar reports of mistreatment of Russian children adopted in European countries. Therefore, he said, those adoptions will continue.
He spoke optimistically, however, about future relations with the United States, saying Russia wants constructive dialogue and cooperation with Washington, even as he stressed that any acts Moscow considered unfriendly would be met with a stern response.
Although 77 Russian citizens who had been living in Syria arrived in Moscow on Wednesday aboard two Russian flights from neighboring Lebanon, Mr. Lavrov declined to describe their departure as an evacuation. He said there were no plans to begin evacuating any of the thousands of Russians still living in Syria, many of them women married to Syrian men who once studied in Russia. He said Russia has contingency plans for evacuating its citizens in Syria, as it does for any unstable region, "but we are not talking about carrying out these plans now."
Mr. Lavrov said Russian Embassy employees in Damascus would stay put, although their families and the embassy's nonessential personnel left the country long ago.
As the violence in Syria has worsened, he said, Russian citizens were asked if they would like to leave the country when humanitarian flights were making a return journey. "About 1,000 women said they would be interested in this in principle," Mr. Lavov said, but when the opportunity arose this week for Russians to board flights from Beirut, fewer than 100 said they would leave.
Mr. Lavrov oversaw long negotiations on the adoption issue that resulted in an accord with the United States that took effect in the fall. But by December, Russia's parliament had decided to nullify the agreement and halt U.S. adoptions. At first, Mr. Lavrov counseled against the ban. But he quickly abandoned that stance. On Wednesday, he avoided answering a question about his personal feelings regarding the issue.
Instead, he criticized U.S. authorities for not allowing Russian officials access to adopted Russian children, citing a Florida case where Maxim Babayev, 6, reportedly was removed from a Florida home because of child abuse charges.
Mr. Lavrov said he understood very well that the vast majority of the children adopted by American families find loving homes. But he said that, according to Russian estimates, dozens have been abused and at least 19 have died.
"This doesn't happen with European families," Mr. Lavrov said. In 2011, Americans adopted 965 Russian children, Italians adopted 798, and Spaniards 685, according to Russian figures.
Mr. Lavrov said Russia and the United States have made progress in easing visa requirements and in deepening cultural ties. But he cited irritants as well, such as the "odious" Magnitsky Act imposing visa and financial curbs on corrupt Russian officials, along with deep differences over missile defense. The adoption ban is considered by many to be retaliation against Washington for passage of the Magnitsky Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law Dec. 14.
First Published January 24, 2013 12:00 am