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Russia's Lavrov talks down mooted Syrian evacuation

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the Russian government is not evacuating citizens from Syria. As 77 people returned on a pair of government planes, Lavrov said that the Russians simply asked to leave.

The Russian foreign minister said at an annual news conference on Wednesday that the government was not planning an evacuation of its citizens from Syria, as 77 people touched down at a Moscow airport on planes owned by the Emergencies Ministry. The people flew to Moscow from Beirut, having crossed the Syrian border with Lebanon by road.

"We have plans [in place], as we have plans for any country, in case of an escalation of the internal situation," Lavrov said. "But there is no talk of implementing them. For now the assessment of our embassy and respective departments here … does not require the implementation of the existing plans."

Lavrov said that about 1,000 Russians living in Syria wanted to leave the country owing to 22 months of conflict there. The RIA Novositi agency reported that 8,000 Russians are registered with the consulate, but said there could be thousands more women who have married Syrians living in the country.

Though the aircraft were property of the Emergencies Ministry, Lavrov said the planes had taken humanitarian aid to Syria and that people were then offered the chance to return to Russia on them if they wished. According to a Foreign Ministry statement, most of those returning had lost their houses in the Syrian conflict.

Blames rebels for stalemate

Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with Moscow opposing three draft UN Security Council resolutions, saying they were too one-sided in their appraisal of the conflict.

Lavrov also criticized opposition fighters in Syria during Wednesday's address, saying that their determination to oust Assad was an impediment to peace talks.

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

According to a UN-sponsored study, more than 60,000 people have died in the conflict in Syria.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said on Wednesday that an observer team had noticed major damage to the country's farming sector during the conflict - pointing to a 2012 output of wheat and barley that was less than half ordinary levels.

"The mission was struck by the plight of the Syrian people whose capacity to cope is dramatically eroded by 22 months of crisis," the director of the FAO's Emergency and Rehabilitation Division, Dominique Burgeon, said in a statement. "Destruction of infrastructure in all sectors is massive and it is clear that the longer the conflict will last, the longer it will take to rehabilitate it."

msh/mkg (AFP, dpa, Reuters)