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MOSCOW -- The Interfax news agency said Monday that two Russian navy ships are to sail to Syria to protect Russian citizens and its naval base there. This would mark the first time since the uprising in Syria started that Russia is sending extra troops to its base in Syria.
Interfax quoted an unidentified Russian navy official as saying that the Nikolai Filchenkov and Caesar Kunikov amphibious assault vessels will be heading to the Syrian port of Tartus, but didn't give a precise date. The official said the ships will carry an unspecified number of Marines to protect Russians in Syria and evacuate materials from Tartus if necessary.
The Defense Ministry had no immediate comment, and an official at the Russian Black Sea fleet declined to comment. Tartus is Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union with Russian personnel of an unspecified number. The bulk of Russian military men in Syria are military advisers teaching Syrians how to use Russian weapons.
Russia has shielded Syria's regime from international sanctions over its crackdown on protests. It also continued to provide it with arms.
Opposition groups say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime. But a ferocious government crackdown led many to take up arms, and the conflict is now an armed insurgency.