MASNAA, Lebanon — Four buses carrying Russian citizens escaping the Syrian civil war crossed into Lebanon today, in the first evacuation organized by Moscow since the start of the conflict nearly two years ago.
About 80 people, mostly women and children, were on the buses, according to an official from the Russian Embassy in Beirut who was waiting for the group at the Masnaa border crossing in eastern Lebanon. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The evacuation was the strongest sign yet of Russia's doubts in the ability of President Bashar Assad's regime to cling to power.
Russian officials said Monday that about 100 of their citizens in Syria will be taken out overland to Lebanon and flown home from there, presumably because of renewed fighting near Damascus airport. They also said thousands more could follow — many of them Russian women married to Syrians — and later evacuations could be by both air and sea.
Russia has been Assad's main ally since the uprising against him began in March 2011, using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions over the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent.
Assad has dismissed calls that he step down, claiming that the country is fighting Islamic extremists and terrorists. He has proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution, but the opposition insists he can play no role in a resolution to the conflict.
Last month, Russia started distancing itself from Assad, with President Vladimir Putin saying that he understands Syria needs change and that he was not protecting the Syrian ruler.
Some of the Russians inside the buses crossing into Lebanon today closed the curtains so that they won't be seen by journalists waiting at the border. Many refused to comment and those who did said they were going home to visit relatives.
The group was expected to travel to the Lebanese capital and board two planes that Russia sent to Beirut to take them home.
Syrian conflict began as peaceful protests against Assad's rule but turned into civil war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives, according to a recent United Nations estimate.
As the evacuation got under way, Syrian government forces and rebels battled in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in Syria today.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes between opposition fighters and troops were concentrated in the areas around the capital, including along the road linking it to the international airport.
Persistent fighting along the airport road has prompted regional and international airlines to suspend flights to Damascus in recent weeks, although Syrian officials maintain that the airport facility remains open.
No casualties were immediately reported in today's fighting.