MOSCOW – Russia is sending two planes to Lebanon to evacuate Russians from civil war-struck Syria, authorities said Monday, a move that appears to reflect Moscow's increasing doubts about Syrian President Bashar Assad's ability to stay in power.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said two of its planes were scheduled to fly to Beirut on Tuesday to carry more than 100 Russians from Syria.
Russia has been Assad's main ally since the start of the conflict in the Arab state in March 2011, using its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions.
But it has recently begun to distance itself from the Syrian ruler, signaling it is resigned to him losing power. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia realizes the need for change in Syria.
Russia's Foreign Ministry has said that it has contingency plans in place to evacuate thousands of Russians from Syria, most of them Russian women married to Syrians. Only a few thousand have registered with Russian consular officials.
Russian officials said both planes and sea vessels could be used in the effort.
A squadron of Russian Navy ships is currently in the Mediterranean for a planned exercise near Syrian shores later this month. Military officials earlier said that the exercise will simulate both the landing of marines and taking people on board from the shore.
Russia's naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus is the only such facility it has outside the former Soviet Union.
Assad has dismissed calls that he step down and proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution.
But the Syrian opposition has insisted that he can play no role in a resolution to the conflict, which according to the United Nations has left more than 60,000 people dead since March 2011.
The Syrian government on Monday blamed a rebel attack on a key power line for a blackout that hit Damascus and much of the country's south overnight, leaving residents cold and in the dark amid a fuel crisis that has stranded many at home.
The Syrian capital's 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts as the country's conflict has damaged infrastructure and sapped the government's finances. But some said Monday that the overnight outage was the first to darken the entire capital since the conflict began.
The blackout hit residents especially hard because of rampant fuel shortages and below-freezing temperatures. Getting gas requires waiting in hours-long lines at stations, and cooking fuel and diesel for portable heaters has grown scarce and expensive -- forcing people to find other ways to keep warm.
"We covered ourselves from the cold in blankets because there was no diesel or electricity for the heaters," said retired teacher Mariam Ghassan, 60. "We changed our whole lives to get organized for power cuts, but now we have no idea when the power will come or go."
At its height, the outage engulfed all of Damascus, and extended to an area at least 31 miles north to the town of Zabadani and across the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida that abut the Jordanian border.
By midday Monday, power had returned to more than half of the capital, and Electricity Minister Imad Khamis said authorities were working to restore it in other areas.
Also Monday, Syria's defense minister vowed the army will keep chasing rebels all over the country "until it achieves victory and thwarts the conspiracy that Syria is being subjected to."
Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij's comments came as activists reported air raids and shelling of different areas around Syria, including a helicopter raid in the northeastern town of Tabqa that killed eight people including two women and three children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Tensions have flared between Syria and Turkey after shells fired from Syria landed on the Turkish side of the border. As a result, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States decided to send two batteries of Patriot air defense missiles each to protect Turkey, their NATO ally.
On Monday, German soldiers unloaded trucks carrying the missile systems at the port of Iskenderun, while another ship, carrying the Dutch shipment, waited its turn anchored at the harbor.
Also Monday, Syria's main opposition coalition said it had failed to select a prime minister or form a transitional government during a weekend meeting in Istanbul.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces said in a statement that it had formed a committee to "complete the election of a prime minister" within the next 10 days. It also formed seven committees to deal with issues such as diplomatic relations and aiding refugees until a transitional government can be formed.
The group's failure to select a prime minister is likely to disappoint the United States and its other backers who had pressed for its formation in the hopes that it would provide more cohesive leadership for those seeking to topple Assad.