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Russia admits large Syria evacuation amid fighting

BEIRUT — Russia acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that it pulled the families of its diplomats out of Syria long ago, and rejected suggestions that the recent evacuation of dozens of its citizens marks the start of a larger rescue effort.

Inside Syria, fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad raged around the capital Damascus and in the north of the country, killing at least 60 people, including six members of a single family who died in a government rocket attack, activists said.

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Russia, a close Damascus ally for decades, has continued to be the main protector of the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian uprising, shielding it from UN sanctions over a bloody crackdown. Moscow also continued to provide Assad with weapons even as the uprising morphed into a civil war, adding to massive arsenals of Soviet and Russian weapons Damascus has received over previous decades.

Despite the escalating violence in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to play down the significance of the 77 Russian citizens who fled Syria a day earlier and returned to Moscow on two flights on Wednesday. He told reporters that about 1,000 Russians residing in Syria, mostly women married to Syrian men, contacted consular officials to express their interest in leaving the country. He said no large-scale evacuation of the tens of thousands of Russians still in the country was immediately planned.

However, Lavrov for the first time mentioned that families of Russian diplomats ‘‘left long ago.’’ He did not provide further details, but said that the embassy in Damascus is functioning normally.

Russia has recently started to distance itself from Assad, and a top diplomat acknowledged last month that the rebels might win the civil war. But the evacuation was the strongest sign yet of Moscow’s waning confidence in the ability of Assad to hold on to power as rebels gain momentum in their fight to oust the regime.

The fighting continued unabated inside Syria on Wednesday, with government airstrikes in the Damascus area and clashes and shelling in the southern province of Daraa and the central region of Homs, activists said.

In the northern province of Aleppo, a regime rocket hit the village of Abu Taltal, killing six members of a single family, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

Both groups rely on a network of activists on the ground and frequently report on government bombardment of rebel-dominated regions.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on the international community to declare the Syrian regime’s bombardment of its own citizens a war crime.

Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported that armed opposition groups appeared to have deliberately destroyed religious sites in mixed areas of northern Syria late last year.

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