BEIRUT -- Russia is preparing to dispatch a pair of warships carrying a contingent of Black Sea Fleet marines to its logistics base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the Russian Interfax news agency reported Monday, in what appeared to be another sign of the deteriorating security situation in the strife-ridden nation.
The report quoted an unidentified Russian naval source saying the amphibious ships Nikolay Filchenkov and Tsezar Kunikov, accompanied by the rescue tug SB-15, were “preparing for a non-routine departure” for Tartus, Russia’s only Mediterranean base.
There was no official confirmation from the Russian government. [Updated June 18, 8:55 a.m.: “I can neither confirm nor deny the report at this stage,” Andrei Luzik, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said by telephone.]
The purpose of the reported deployment was to assist in securing the base amid escalating violence in Syria and to aid in the possible evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria should the need arise.
A publicly unknown number of Russians are said to be in Syria, assisting security officials with the operation and maintenance of Russian and Soviet-made weaponry. Syria has long been a major arms client of Moscow.
The report comes after weeks of heated speculation about Russian warships steaming for Syria and Russian weapons deliveries for the beleaguered government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Kremlin ally.
Moscow and Washington clashed heatedly last week about a supposed delivery of Russian attack helicopters to Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton contended that the helicopters would “escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”
Russia said any weaponry being sold to Syria was designed against external threats and could not be deployed against rebels. Russia said no new helicopters were being sent to Syria, but that “scheduled repairs of hardware that was supplied to Syria many years ago” had been carried out.
Assad's government has been accused of brutally repressing the 15-month-old rebellion. Assad says his nation is battling “terrorists” and a “foreign conspiracy.”
--Patrick J. McDonnell. Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed.
Photo: Protesters chant slogans against the Syrian regime and Russia's support of President Bashar Assad as they burn a banner depicting Assad, top, his brother, Maher Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, bottom, in the Lebanese port city of Sidon on Sunday. Credit: Mohammed Zaatari / Associated Press.