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Russia 'to evacuate its citizens in Syria'

Russian has sent warships to Syria, a move that could indicate the Syrian regime feels increasingly threatened by rebels. Meanwhile, two Russians in the country have been kidnapped and a top US journalist has been freed.

Russia sent warships to the Mediterranean for a possible evacuation of its citizens in Syria, a Russian news agency reported on Tuesday, a possible indication that Syrian President Bashar Assad feels threatened by rebels who are zoning in on Damascus.

"They are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens ... Preparations for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily classified," the Russian agency quoted its source as saying.

The move by Russia comes a day after Syrian opposition took control of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, which is located just 2 miles (3 kilometers) from central Damascus, according to activists, who also claim that the gain is significant.

"Strategically, this site is very important because it is one of the best doors into central Damascus," rebel spokesman Abu Nidal told Reuters.

"The regime normally does not fight to regain areas captured any more because its forces have been drained. But I think they could see Yarmouk as a red line and fight back fiercely."

The Syrian opposition has made a series of gains in recent weeks, both military and displomatic: they have seized a number of army installations across Syria and its new coalition has gained recognition from Western and Arab states.

Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said it was possible that Assad's opponents might win the civil war, adding the Russia was looking at preparations for a possible evacuation. The Kremlin is understood to maintain close contact with the Syrian regime.

Kidnappings

Russia's Foreign Ministry also said on Tuesday that two of its countrymen working for a private company had been kidnapped in Syria, between Homs and Tartus, a port city which hosts a Russian naval base.

"We are actively working on it," Lavrov said, "of course, all the necessary moves are being made both in Syria and other states that might have influence on the situation."

And US network NBC announced that its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, and his production crew were freed during a firefight on Monday, after being held for five days.

In an interview after his release, Engel said: "I think I have a very good idea of who they were. This was a group known as the Shabiha. This is a government militia. These are people who are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, they are Shiite, they were talking openly about their loyalty to the government."

sej/rc (dpa, Reuters)