Russia has sent warships to the Mediterranean after some of its senior diplomats said last week that Moscow may call for the evacuation of Russian citizens in Syria if the government in Damascus falls.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that ships from its Baltic Fleet would replace other vessels that have been patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean since November.
The country's Interfax news agency quoted unnamed naval sources as saying the vessels were bound for Syria “to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens.”
The report, which could not be confirmed, comes a day after Russia acknowledged that two of its citizens and an Italian working in Latakia province were kidnapped late Monday and that their captors have demanded a ransom for their release.
In another kidnapping incident in Syria, the chief foreign correspondent for the U.S. television network NBC said Tuesday that he and his production crew were freed unharmed from their five-day abduction during a firefight at a checkpoint set up by Islamist rebels.
Richard Engel told NBC from safety in Turkey that his team's kidnappers were members of a pro-government Shabiha militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
He said the three-man NBC crew was abducted when anti-Assad rebels they were driving with were ambushed by heavily armed men who “executed” one of the rebel escorts.
Engel said his group was then taken to a series of safehouses where they were subjected to “a lot of psychological torture” with threats of being killed and mock shootings. He said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange them for four Iranian agents and two Shabiha members held by Syrian rebels.
Their ordeal, which began shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey last Thursday, ended when the captors drove unexpectedly into the rebel checkpoint.
Also Tuesday, Syrian activists said fierce fighting broke out in a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus where rebels opposed to President Assad have been trying to push out pro-government fighters.
A rebel spokesman said the Yarmouk camp is strategically significant because it could “open one of the best doors into central Damascus.” Residents said that by late Tuesday the Syrian military had deployed several tanks along camp's main entrance.
The clashes come two days after activists reported Syrian warplanes bombing the camp and killing eight people.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said Tuesday the conflict is eating away at the country's healthcare system, leaving citizens without access to basic services.
A WHO spokesperson in Geneva said in some places, including the western city of Homs, there are only a handful of doctors still working.