MOSCOW -- Russia announced Monday that it was sending two airplanes from its emergency services fleet to Beirut to evacuate about 100 Russian citizens leaving Syria, reflecting Moscow's assessment that President Bashar Assad's forces are losing control of the country after nearly two years of fighting.
It was not clear whether the news signaled the beginning of a large-scale evacuation. Russia has an estimated 30,000 citizens in Syria, including government and military personnel, private contractors and tens of thousands of women married to Syrian men. About a dozen Russian ships are in the Mediterranean off the coast of Syria for naval exercises and could, officials have said, be used to evacuate Russian citizens.
Irina Rossius,a spokeswoman for Russia's Emergency Services Ministry, said two airplanes would fly today to Lebanon's capital "so that all Russians who wish to, can leave Syria," Interfax reported. She said more than 100 Russians expected to leave. It is now common for people leaving Damascus, if they can afford it, to avoid the contested route to the city's airport by driving to Beirut and flying out from there.
Ms. Rossius did not say which group was evacuating, but conditions have been deteriorating for diplomats. Last week, Russia announced that it was closing its consulate in Aleppo in the wake of a double bombing that killed 82 people, and security officials told the newspaper Kommersant last month that the authorities were prepared to send 100 armed intelligence officers to help Russian diplomats leave Damascus if necessary. Russian arms manufacturers also have military advisers in place to assist the Syrian military with air-defense systems purchased from Russia.
Russia first formulated plans for an evacuation seven months ago, but delayed putting them into action -- in part, analysts said, because it would send a political message that Moscow no longer considered it likely that Mr. Assad would prevail. But Foreign Ministry officials are increasingly concerned about security and have been quietly trying to negotiate the release of two Russian steelworkers who were kidnapped last month.
The conflict continued to rage Monday, with the government accusing rebels of attacking an important power line, causing a blackout in Damascus, the capital, as well as areas to the north and a swath of territory reaching south to the Jordanian border. Power failures have been frequent reminders of the conflict that has engulfed Syria, but the latest one appeared to be the first to affect the entire capital, where Mr. Assad's forces are still largely in control. The Associated Press reported that power was restored Monday in parts of Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which receives reports from a network of sources inside the country, reported that more than 50 people were killed when a booby-trapped car exploded near the headquarters of a pro-government militia in the eastern suburbs of the northern city of Hama, where the Ismaili minority sect predominates.
In Istanbul, the main exile opposition group once again failed to form a transitional government, deciding instead to postpone the step while new proposals are drawn up.