Russia has canceled plans to stop at a Spanish port to refuel its warships heading for the Syrian coast, Spanish and Russian officials confirmed. Spain previously faced pressure from NATO allies to refuse permission.
Russia withdrew a request for a group of warships to refuel at the Spanish port of Ceuta on Wednesday, according to Spanish and Russian officials.
"The Russian Embassy in Madrid has just told us that it is withdrawing its demand for permission to stop over for the boats, which means that the stop-overs have been canceled," Spain's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Later on Wednesday however, Russia issued a statement denying it had ever asked for its ships to refuel. "There had been no requests sent from the Russian Defense Ministry to the Spanish authorities," Russian news agency Interfax quoted ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying.
The eight-ship carrier battle group from northern Russia was expected to take on fuel and supplies at the north African port, which is officially part of Spain.
Spain is reviewing whether it will allow Russian warships to refuel at the port of Ceuta on Africa's north coast.
The Russian Embassy in Spain did not provide a reason for its requested withdrawal. However, EFE news agency reported that the Spanish department responsible for granting port stop-overs had demanded clarification from Russia on whether the ships would be used in action against Syrian civilians.
According to the Foreign Ministry, Spain had originally given the Russian fleet permission to dock in September.
Earlier this month, Russia announced that its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and part of its Northern Fleet would be sent to the eastern Mediterranean.
The naval group also contains a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, two anti-submarine warships and four support vessels, according to NATO officials.
Pressure from NATO
Madrid faced pressure from its allies on Wednesday to refuse permission for Russian ships to refuel at a port in the North African enclave of Ceuta.
NATO, which has been monitoring the progress of the flotilla, previously said the refueling decision is ultimately Spain's to make, but the military alliance expressed concern that the ships could be used in Russian airstrikes in Syria.
"It is up to each nation to decide, as has been NATO policy for many years, but we are concerned about the potential use of this carrier group to increase attacks against civilians in Aleppo," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
"All allies are aware of our concerns," he added.
Former Belgium prime minister and the leader of the liberal alliance in European parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted his disapproval of the possible refueling.
The Russian ships are carrying dozens of fighter bombers and helicopters, NATO diplomats said, adding that the flotilla is expected to join around 10 other Russian naval vessels.
Spain, which is a member of NATO, regularly allows Russian warships to stop in Ceuta. Since April 2010, Spain has received 60 stop-overs by the Russian military, with the most recent one this past October 16.
Russia has been undertaking a bombing campaign in Syria over the past year in support of President Bashar al-Assad. NATO and other allies have criticized the air campaign for causing civilian fatalities as well as impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid.
cb, rs/sms (AFP, Reuters, EFE)