MASNAA, Lebanon // Russia began evacuating its citizens from Syria yesterday, the strongest indication yet that Moscow sees president Bashar Al Assad's grip on power slipping nearly two years into the conflict.
Four buses carrying about 80 people, mostly women and children, crossed into Lebanon in the early afternoon at the Masnaa border crossing, where an official from the Russian Embassy in Beirut was waiting for them.
The development came after Russian officials announced in Moscow on Monday that about 100 of its citizens in Syria would be taken out overland to Lebanon and flown home from there.
The land route was presumably chosen because of renewed fighting near the airport in Damascus. The officials also said thousands more could follow - many of them Russian women married to Syrians - and that later evacuations could be by both air and sea.
Russia has been Mr Al Assad's main ally since the uprising against him began in March 2011, using its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions over the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent.
Mr Al Assad has repeatedly dismissed calls that he step down, claiming that the country is fighting Islamic extremists and terrorists. He has proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution, but the opposition insists he play no role in a resolution to the conflict.
Last month, Russia started distancing itself from Mr Al Assad, with president Vladimir Putin saying that he understood Syria needed change and that he was not protecting the Syrian ruler.
Some of the Russians on the buses crossing into Lebanon yesterday closed the curtains so they would not be seen by journalists waiting at the border. Most of the adults refused to comment and those who did speak said only they were going home to visit relatives.
Jodie, an 8-year-old girl travelling from Damascus with her sister and her Syrian father, said she was going to Moscow to see her mother, who is Russian. Jodie and her 4-year-old sister Nadine spoke briefly to reporters when they got off the bus to get their passports stamped at the border.
"I used to hear the shelling, but I was not scared," said Nadine. "I would close my eyes."
In Moscow, the deputy foreign minister, Andrei Denisov, dismissed reports that yesterday's evacuations were the beginning of a Russian exodus from Syria. He told media that Russian planes had landed in Beirut to deliver humanitarian aid at the Syrian government's request, and would take home those who wanted to leave.
As the evacuation got under way, government forces and rebels battled in the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in the country.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes between opposition fighters and troops were concentrated in the areas around the capital, including along the road linking it to the international airport.