MOSCOW -- Buses carrying several dozen Russian citizens crossed the Syrian border into Lebanon on Tuesday, news reports said, in preparation for flights to Moscow as the Russian government activates long-standing contingency plans to remove its citizens from the Syrian conflict zone.
The number of departures was tiny considering that more than 30,000 Russian citizens are believed to live in Syria, including government and military personnel, private contractors and thousands of women married to Syrian men. Officials said there is no discussion of a mandatory or large-scale evacuation.
A Russian diplomat in Damascus told the Interfax news service that around 100 Russians were leaving, mostly people "whose houses are destroyed, who come from various 'hot spots.' " The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that no diplomats would be on the flights.
"This is not in any way an evacuation; what's going on is that they are sending everyone who wants to go on these two airplanes," the diplomat was quoted as saying. The emergency flights are free, he said, and may be necessary for families "whose homes have been destroyed, and who are left without food and shelter."
He added that it was not yet clear whether further flights would be necessary.
Yelena Suponina, a Moscow political analyst specializing in the Middle East, said the flights do represent the beginning of an evacuation, but it remains unclear how many Russians will want to leave. Most of those who left on Tuesday, she said, were women, with some children, and very few adult men.
She said the contingency plans are being implemented because of increasing demands from Russians asking Moscow for passage out, and lawmakers beginning to complain about Russians who may feel trapped in Syria, amplifying a message that Russia has been sending for weeks -- that its experts do not expect President Bashar al-Assad to regain control of the country.
"I would say it is a symbolic moment, but not necessarily a turning point," Ms. Suponina said. She said the turning point occurred last summer, when Russian officials "started to understand that the situation around civil war in Syria would continue and the Syrian authorities would not find it easy to return stability. This understanding did not arrive now, it arrived some time ago."
A spokesman at the Russian Embassy in Damascus declined to comment on the Interfax report.
The Associated Press said four buses carrying 80 people, mostly women and children and some men, crossed into Lebanon.
The question of an evacuation is highly sensitive in Russia, the main international supporter of Mr. Assad and his forces during almost two years of unrest that has turned into civil war.
Analysts said a full-scale evacuation would send a deeply discouraging political message to Mr. Assad, and present a logistical challenge. 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.
The bus journey on Tuesday showed that the Syrian authorities still control the main highway to Lebanon, a crucial supply route. But elsewhere, activists reported a string of violent clashes from the south to the north of the country.
In an indication of fresh sectarian violence, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and relies on a network of activists inside Syria for its information, said nine rebel soldiers had been wounded in the town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey, where persistent clashes have been reported between Arabs and Kurds.
Syrian government helicopters were also said to have attacked a suburb of Dara'a in the south, where the uprising started in March 2011. Further airstrikes were reported in suburbs ringing Damascus, the capital, while militants said there had been renewed fighting near a road leading to Damascus International Airport.
Farther north, government and rebel forces fought for control of areas of Homs and Aleppo.
Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.