KIEV, Ukraine – The Ukrainian government evacuated dozens of Ukrainians and Poles from Syria on Wednesday, using a military plane to transport a group made up largely of wives and children of Syrian men.
"I'm saving the life of my baby and my own life," a Ukrainian, Ilona Khamo, said after arriving at Kiev's Borispil airport along with her 3-month-old daughter and her Syrian husband.
She also said "they are cutting children there with knives," but it wasn't clear whom she was blaming — the regime of President Bashar Assad or the rebels. She spoke to reporters as authorities rushed her and others to a temporary residence, and it wasn't possible to get her to elaborate.
The Il-76 plane departed from Aleppo, making a stopover in Damascus before flying to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. It carried 199 people, including 177 Ukrainians, 15 Poles and seven Syrians, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.
Most of those evacuated are Polish and Ukrainian women married to Syrian men, along with their children. The mixed families are in many cases a legacy of strong ties that were forged between the Soviet bloc and Arab countries during the communist era, a time when Arab students would often study engineering, medicine and other technical subjects at Eastern European universities, and sometimes return home with wives.
The evacuees traveled to the Aleppo airport unharmed despite attacks on the access road a day earlier, Poland's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Marcin Bosacki, said. He said those fleeing Syria decided to leave because of the escalating fighting between rebels and the Syrian army, but that many other Polish citizens chose to remain.
Poland's Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski sent a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart thanking the country for evacuating the Poles, a group that includes six women and nine children between the ages of 1 and 20. The Poles are to fly on to Warsaw on Thursday.
Last month, 62 Ukrainians were evacuated from Syria.
Poland evacuated its diplomats and closed its embassy in Damascus last week due to the intensifying civil war. The Polish embassy had also represented U.S. interests in Syria since February.
Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.