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Russians Evacuated From Syria Arrive Home

A fighter from the Free Syrian Army fires his sniper rifle from inside a house during heavy fighting in a suburb of Damascus.
A fighter from the Free Syrian Army fires his sniper rifle from inside a house during heavy fighting in a suburb of Damascus.
Two planes carrying 77 Russians escaping Syria's civil war arrived in Moscow's Domodedovo airport on January 23, an operation that Moscow denied was the start of a mass exodus.

"Now we are at Moscow Domodedovo airport where two Russian Emergencies Ministry flights from Beirut have just landed," said Yevgeny Ershov, deputy head of the Emergencies Ministry. "They brought 77 people to whom the Russian government offered the opportunity to voluntarily return to Russia because of the emergency situation in Syria."

Anzhelika Yunis, who arrived on one of the two planes belonging to the Emergencies Ministry, said she was given little time to prepare to leave.

"How did this happen? I've packed up and sold everything I could in one week. That's it," she said.

Russian authorities declined to say why the evacuation was happening via Lebanon, but security concerns about Damascus airport may have been a factor.

Rebel attacks on the airport have prompted many international airlines to suspend flights.

Russian officials say there are tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Syria, many of them Russian women married to Syrians, and their children.

Russia has been one of President Bashar al-Assad's strongest supporters during the nearly two-year rebellion against his rule, vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressing him to end the bloodshed.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said fewer Russians than expected had taken advantage of the opportunity to leave Syria.

"When we first asked, about 1,000 [Russian] women said they were interested]," he said. "But when the opportunity presented itself, with recent Emergency Situations Ministry flights, fewer than 100 women were ready to use this opportunity."

Lavrov also said there would be no peace inside Syria unless the opposition talks to Assad.

"The main obstacle is the obsessive desire of the [Syrian] opposition to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime," Lavrov said. "As long as this uncompromising position remains, nothing good will happen."

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said rebels have been destroying the religious sites of Syria's minorities.

With reporting by Reuters and AP
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