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Four busloads of Russian citizens moved out of Syria to Lebanon

Jamal Saidi / Reuters

Lebanese soldiers escort Russian nationals traveling across the border in a convoy from Damascus on Tuesday.

Four buses carrying Russian citizens escaping the Syrian civil war crossed into Lebanon on Tuesday, in the first evacuation organized by Moscow since the start of the conflict nearly two years ago.

About 80 people, mostly women and children, were on the buses, according to an official from the Russian Embassy in Beirut who was waiting for the group at the Masnaa border crossing in eastern Lebanon. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The evacuation was the strongest sign yet of Russia's doubts in the ability of President Bashar Assad's regime to cling to power in Syria.

Russian officials said Monday that about 100 of their citizens in Syria would be taken out overland to Lebanon and flown home from there, presumably because of renewed fighting near Damascus airport.

They also said thousands more could follow — many of them Russian women married to Syrians — and later evacuations could be by both air and sea.

Syrian troops have been fighting off rebels who are trying to capture military bases in the north of the country. Attacks on government bases have been the recent focus of fighting in the Syria conflict. The daily struggle continues for families in the South as buying bread means crossing the front line. NBC's Bill Neely reports.

Russia has been Assad's main ally since the uprising against him began in March 2011, using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to shield Damascus from international sanctions over the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on dissent.

But last month, Russia started distancing itself from Assad, with President Vladimir Putin saying he understood that Syria needed to change and that he was not protecting the Syrian ruler.

The Kremlin's evacuation of Russians may mark a turning point in its view of the civil war, representing increasing doubts about Assad's hold on power and a sober understanding that it has to start rescue efforts before it becomes too late. 

"It's a sign of distrust in Assad, who seems unlikely to hold on to power," said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. 

Malashenko said that the evacuation reflected a strong concern in Moscow that Assad's fall would put Russians in grave danger. "There is a strong likelihood that Assad's foes could unleash a massacre of those whom they see as his supporters," he said. 

Some of the Russians inside the buses crossing into Lebanon on Tuesday closed the curtains so that they wouldn't be seen by journalists waiting at the border. Many declined to comment, and those who did said they were going home to visit relatives.

The group was expected to travel to the Lebanese capital and board two planes that Russia sent to Beirut to take them home.

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