Large Russian naval flotilla docks in Syria’s port of Tartus
DAMASCUS - A large Russian naval flotilla led by an aircraft carrier has docked in the Syrian port of Tartus in what Damascus state media hailed Sunday as a show of solidarity by close ally Moscow.
The six-day call to the Mediterranean port, where Russia has a recently expanded naval base, is intended to boost ties at a time when President Bashar al-Assad's government is under mounting Western and Arab pressure over its bloody crackdown on dissent, the Syrian press said.
But Russia defence officials said the stop was simply to replenish supplies.
"The port call is aimed at bringing the two countries closer together and strengthening their ties of friendship," Syria's official SANA news agency quoted a Russian naval officer it identified as Vladimir Yakushin as saying.
"The commanders of the Russian naval vessels docked in Tartus took turns to express their solidarity with the Syrian people," the news agency added.
The governor of Tartus province, Atef al-Nadaf, paid tribute to the "honourable position adopted by Russia which has stood by the Syrian people."
But Russian defence officials stressed the ships were conducting regular Mediterranean Sea exercises unrelated to the Syrian crisis and had only entered port to replenish supplies.
"After replenishing their supplies, the ships will leave Syrian waters on January 9 and continue on their long-distance mission," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
Despite strong Western criticism, Russia has stood by its Cold War ally in the face of a mounting international outcry over the death toll from security force efforts to crush nearly 10 months of anti-government protests.
In October, Moscow joined Beijing in vetoing a Western-drafted UN Security Council resolution that would have threatened Damascus with "targeted measures" if it failed to rein in its security forces.