REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Russia's foreign minister denied reports Tuesday that his country had sent special forces to help its ally Syria, calling media reports "sheer fairy tales."
Sergei Lavrov said he surmised that the reports must have arisen because an oil tanker was sent to the Gulf of Aden to help refuel Russian navy boats positioned to protect the sea routes in the area from pirates.
Several Russian and Western news outlets reported Tuesday that the Iman tanker, at the Syrian port of Tartus, had an "anti-terror squad" on board. The Syrian regime often refers to the forces rebelling against President Bashar Assad as terrorists.
Lavrov said the tanker had a "protection unit" on board to protect against pirate attacks, "like any other civilian vessel."
The Russia Today news channel reported that the Russian Defense Ministry issued this statement:
There are no Russian combat ships on missions off Syrian shores. The Iman auxiliary vessel (tanker) has been in the port of Tartus for the last 10 days with the task of providing supplies to the ships of the Black Sea Fleet and the North Sea Fleet that are currently protecting the navigation through the Gulf of Aden. The crew of the Iman is manned by civilians with a security formation joined with them.
Russia is an ally of Assad and the chief weapons supplier to Syria. Although Russia has turned down calls for Assad to step down at the United Nations Security Council in the past, Lavrov says Russia will back a plan created by special envoy Kofi Annan, as yet unrevealed, to settle the crisis, the Associated Press reported.
-- Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting with his Serbian counterpart, Vuk Jeremic, in Moscow on March 16. Credit: Misha Japaridze / Associated Press