Amid Syria tensions, Russia sends more warships to Mediterranean

Interfax: Russia to beef up presence over "well-known" crisis; navy says deployment is unrelated to developments in Syria.

Russian naval landing ships 370 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Russian naval landing ships 370 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
MOSCOW - Russia will send two ships to the east Mediterranean to strengthen its naval presence because of the "well-known situation" there, Interfax news agency said on Thursday referring to the Syria crisis.
The agency quoted a source in the armed forces' general staff as saying an anti-submarine vessel and a missile cruiser would be sent in the coming days because the situation "required us to make some adjustments" in the naval force.
According to Interfax, the ships will arrive "in the coming days."
The Defense Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
The navy later denied the deployment was linked to events in Syria and said it was part of a long-planned rotation of its ships in the Mediterranean. It did not say what kind of vessels, or how many, were on their way to the region.
The initial Interfax report had made clear that the aim was to beef up the navy's presence and not to replace the ships in the Mediterranean. The reason for the discrepancy in the two reports was not immediately clear.
The United States accuses Syrian government forces of carrying out last week's chemical weapons attack and has said it is repositioning its naval forces in the Mediterranean.
Russia has repeatedly expressed its opposition to military action against Syria and warned that intervention would be "tragic mistake."
Yesterday, a senior Russian diplomat called on the UN Security Council to wait for inspectors to present their report on an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria before considering a response.
The remarks by Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov showed Russia opposes a plan by Britain to put a draft resolution to the Council on Wednesday authorizing "necessary measures" to protect Syrian civilians.
"It would be premature, at the least, to discuss any Security Council reaction until the UN inspectors working in Syria present their report," the Interfax news agency quoted Titov as saying.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Russia, along with China, has used its veto power in the Security Council three times to block Western-backed resolutions condemning President Bashar Assad and intended to press him to end the violence.
The United States and its Western allies are gearing up for a probable military strike to punish Assad, whom they blame for the alleged chemical attack last week which activists said killed hundreds of people as they slept.
Russia says it suspects rebels may have carried out the gas attack to provoke outside armed intervention, and says any use of force without UN approval would violate international law.
Russia has also said it will not allow a repeat in Syria of what happened in 2010 in Libya, where NATO air strikes helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi after Moscow let a UN resolution authorising military intervention pass by abstaining.
President Vladimir Putin and other officials accuse the United States of using human rights concerns as a pretext to support the ouster of Middle Eastern leaders Washington wants to remove from power for geopolitical reasons.
"The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted.
"Whatever Washington says, the aim of a military operation (would be) regime change in Syria through the destruction of its military potential," tweeted Alexei Pushkov, who heads the international affairs committee in the lower parliament house.
Russia has also likened Western preparations for a probable strike on Syria to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the White House used what turned out to be false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify military action.
In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected US Secretary of State John Kerry's assertion that the Syrian government was to blame for the alleged chemical attack, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
"It's unacceptable that without waiting for the results from (inspectors), accusations are being made only against the Syrian leadership," Interfax quoted an official in Putin's advisory Security Council as saying. "Where is the proof?" The official, who was not identified, said a military strike on Syria would be likely to unleash "uncontrollable chaos in the greater Middle East and strengthen the position of extremists and terrorist groups including al Qaeda".
The Foreign Ministry, in a separate statement that made no mention of a possible Western strike on Syria, said Russia was taking "all necessary steps" to provide for the security of its diplomatic missions in Syria.
Interfax, citing a Russian naval source, reported that Russia is preparing to withdraw personnel from its naval maintenance and supply facility in the Syrian port of Tartous. The navy and Defense Ministry declined to comment.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said late on Tuesday it had evacuated 89 people who wanted to leave Syria, including 75 Russian citizens, on a flight from Latakia to Moscow. It said the ministry had flown 730 people out of Syria this year.