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50 Russians leave Syria due to violence


16:28, January 23, 2013

DAMASCUS, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- A group of Russian nationals left Syria Tuesday due to the mounting violence in the country while the Syrian foreign ministry renewed accusation against the armed groups of "terrorist criminal acts."

As many as 50 Russians, mostly women and children, flew back home through Syria's neighbor Lebanon, reports said.

Although Russian officials commented that the group left Syria for personal reasons and were not part of a full evacuation, the departure marks the first time that Russians get bussed out of the country in fear of the violence inching toward the heart of Damascus.

An official at the Russian embassy said Moscow organized the trip upon the demand of some Russian nationals, denying reports that a full-scale evacuation had been launched.

About 8,000 Russians are registered in Russia's embassy in Syria; in addition, some 25,000 non-registered Russians are living in the war-torn country, according to the embassy.

Russia and Syria are long-time allies and many of their people are related by more than 50 years of intermarriages. Moscow has shielded Damascus from two UN resolutions that could have paved the way for a direct military intervention in Syria.

Such a supportive stance has bred resentment among the anti- Syria activists and armed rebels, who have been threatening to target Russian nationals and diplomats.

Last week, a mortar shell struck a wedding hall just 100 meters away from the Russian embassy. Media reports said the shell was meant to slam the embassy but was miscalculated.

Also, the staff in the Russian consulate in Syria's northern city of Aleppo were pulled out and the consulate was closed after intense fighting between rebels and the government troops as well as the recent blasts that killed tens of Syrians in that hard-hit area, which was once the economic hub of the country.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has said that it has contingency plans in place to evacuate thousands of Russians from Syria.

Meanwhile, the Syrian foreign ministry said Tuesday that "armed terrorist groups," first and foremost the al-Qaida-like Jabhat al- Nusra, are continuing their "terrorist criminal acts" in Syria, the latest of which was the attack in al-Salamiya area in the central province of Hama that has killed 32 people and wounded tens others.

In a letter sent to the United Nations Tuesday, the ministry said the Salamiya "cowardly" attack led to the destruction of the National Hospital in the area.

More than 42 people were said to have been killed in the blast that targeted a branch of pro-government popular committees, adding that most of those killed were civilians.

In its letter, the foreign ministry reiterated that regional powers are funding and facilitating the terrorists' crossing into Syria to commit terrorist acts, urging the UN Security Council to condemn those acts.

On the ground, army units, in cooperation with the guards of the gas station in Jabal al-Shaer area on Palmyra road in Homs, repelled Tuesday an attack by an armed terrorist group, killing and injuring all of its members, Syria's official news agency SANA said.

Quoting a military source, the state agency said that the army unit destroyed five vehicles in southeastern Palmyra, killing all the "terrorists" inside.

Also Tuesday, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said the Syrian army had pursued gunmen in the sprawling eastern al-Gouta countryside of Damascus. It noted that the army had inflicted hefty losses on lives of the gunmen and destroyed their machinery, adding that the army "used in fighting all types of weapons, including artillery and air forces."

The paper stressed that the road to the international airport of Damascus is safe, noting that commercial flights are not affected.

In the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees, the paper said the situation in the Yarmouk is still "tense," adding that clashes are ongoing between Palestinian pro-government popular committees and armed rebels.

Meanwhile, the oppositional Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based activist group, said that eight civilians, including five children and two women and a man, were killed by an airstrike that hit the town of Bala in Damascus countryside. It added that a car bomb rocked the al-Sikka area of al-Sabina suburb, causing damages to several houses. The Observatory, however, stopped short of giving details on casualties.

It also reported ongoing clashes in the northern border town of Ras al-Ein between rebels and local Kurdish groups, as the town, located in the Hasaka province, is predominately Kurds.

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