RUSSIA began evacuating its citizens from Syria yesterday.
The dramatic move was being seen as the strongest indication yet that Moscow no longer believes president Bashar al-Assad can guarantee order, after almost two-years of upheaval.
Four buses carrying about 80 people, mostly women and children, crossed into Lebanon in the early afternoon at the Masnaa border crossing, where an official from the embassy in Beirut was waiting for them.
The development came after Russian officials announced in Moscow on Monday that about 100 of their citizens in Syria will be taken out overland to Lebanon and flown home.
The land route was presumably chosen because of renewed fighting near Damascus airport. The officials also said thousands more could follow – many of them Russian women married to Syrians – and that later evacuations could be by both air and sea.
Russia has been Mr Assad’s main ally since the uprising began in March 2011, using its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to shield him from international sanctions over his regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent.
Mr Assad has dismissed calls that he step down, claiming that the country is fighting Islamic terrorists. Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin said he accepted the case for change.