Middle East

Russia's Lavrov says Beirut flights not Syria evacuation

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Media captionTwo planes carrying about 80 Russians, mainly women and children, arrived in Moscow early on Wednesday

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow is not beginning a mass evacuation of its citizens from Syria.

Mr Lavrov was speaking the day after scores of Russians were flown home from the war-torn country via the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Russia has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest allies.

Meanwhile, Turkey has called for humanitarian access to Syrian cities, warning that about three million people do not have shelter, water or food.

More than 60,000 people are believed to have died in the 22-month-old uprising against President Assad.

Anti-Assad 'obsession'

Speaking in Moscow, Mr Lavrov also criticised opponents of President Assad for their "obsession" with trying to topple him.

"We have plans [for an evacuation], as we have plans for any country, in case of an escalation of the internal situation... but there is no talk of implementing them," Mr Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

He said that about 1,000 Russian citizens living in Syria wanted to leave the country.

Mr Lavrov said Russia had pulled out the families of diplomats, but there were no immediate plans to reduce embassy staff.

He said Russia's embassy in Damascus was functioning normally.

Mr Lavrov also warned that opposition calls to remove President Assad prior to any negotiations were hindering efforts to end the violence.

"Everything runs up against the opposition members' obsession with the idea of the overthrow of the Assad regime. As long as this irreconcilable position remains in force, nothing good will happen, armed action will continue, people will die," he said.

Two planes carrying about 80 Russians, mainly women and children, arrived in Moscow early on Wednesday. They had travelled from Syria to Beirut by bus.

'Very dangerous'

The flights were provided by Russia's emergencies ministry, and Russian media said doctors and psychologists were aboard.

"It's very dangerous there. Rockets, planes, tanks," one man named as Albert Omar, told state TV.

A Russian woman, who was not named, said: "It had become impossible to live there. There is no money. No work. We have lost everything."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a "humanitarian tragedy" was taking place in Syria, and he called on the UN Security Council to act.

"What we want is not something which will create political crisis, but humanitarian access to Hama, to Homs, to Damascus, to Daraa - all these places should be opened, should be guaranteed by the UN Security Council," he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

On Tuesday, an unnamed Russian diplomat quoted by AFP news agency said the flights had been organised for Russian citizens who had requested assistance from the Damascus consulate.

He said the planes would probably not be the last.

According to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, 8,000 Russians are registered with the consulate in Syria.

Analysts say Russia could be trying to protect its citizens from possible revenge attacks if the Syrian opposition prevails in the war.

Russia has not renounced its support for Mr Assad, but it has acknowledged he may not win.

In more violence on Wednesday, opposition activists said five members of one family were killed when a missile hit the village of Albu Taltal in Syria's northern province of Aleppo before dawn.

Heavy mortar fire was also reported in the city of Aleppo.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - an activist group - reported loyalist troops bombing the town of Douma, near Damascus, and rebels battling troops at military checkpoints in the northern city of Idlib.

None of the accounts can be independently verified.