MOSCOW Russia said on Tuesday it had started evacuating scores of citizens who wanted to leave Syria but denied the move was the start of a mass exodus.
Two senior diplomats played down the significance of decision, announced on Monday, to send aircraft to bring Russians home almost two years after the start of the revolt against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
"We are not talking about a full evacuation ... It is not planned that everyone will leave," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov said, according to state-run news agency Itar-Tass.
"We are helping those who want to leave," Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on the sidelines of a meeting in Moscow between Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
Russia has been Assad's most powerful foreign protector, vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to push the president out or press him to end the bloodshed.
But Bogdanov, President Vladimir Putin's Middle East affairs envoy, made waves in December when he was quoted as saying Syrian rebels could defeat Assad's forces and that Russia was making preparations to evacuate its citizens if necessary.
Russian officials have tried to row back since then on the issue of the outcome of the fighting, which has escalated from a crackdown on protests to a civil war.
"At the beginning there were predictions (that the fighting would last) two to three months, four months," Bogdanov said on Tuesday. "The military-political situation could develop in various ways, but we think it (the conflict) may be prolonged."
Russia's Emergencies Ministry said on Monday it was sending two planes to Lebanon on Tuesday to evacuate more than 100 citizens from Syria.
Three buses carrying Russian citizens crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon on Tuesday, Itar-Tass reported.
Some were expected to arrive in Russia late on Tuesday or early on Wednesday. The Emergencies Ministry said it had no information about any further flights.
Russian officials say there are tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Syria, many of them Russian women married to Syrians and their children.
Voice of Russia radio, citing Russian diplomats, said the total figure was more than 33,000, but officials at the Russian consulate in Damascus declined to comment.
Moscow says it has no intention of propping up Assad but insists he must not be pushed from power by outside forces, such as the United Nations, and that his exit must not be a precondition for a peace deal. (Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Heavens)