MOSCOW — Russia is preparing to send two amphibious assault ships to the Syrian port of Tartus where Moscow operates a strategic naval base to ensure safety of its nationals, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.
"Two major amphibious ships -- The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov -- are preparing to be dispatched to Tartus outside of their schedule," the Russian news agency quoted an unidentified officer from the Russian naval headquarters as saying.
The two ships will carry a "large" group of marines, Interfax added. There was no official confirmation of the report from the navy or the defence ministry.
The Tsezar Kunikov can carry 150 landing troops and various armaments including tanks, while The Nikolai Filchenkov can carry up to 1,500 tonnes of cargo and equipment, the report said.
Interfax said that the ships could be used to evacuate Russian nationals.
"The crews of The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov and SB-15 rescue tug together with marines on board are able to ensure security of Russian nationals and evacuate part of the property of the logistical support base if need be," Interfax quoted a source as saying.
The protracted conflict between the ruling regime and the opposition in Syria shows no signs of easing. The opposition has demanded the deployment of armed peacekeepers after UN observers halted their work because of bloodshed.