Russia Denies Large Syria Evacuation Amid Fighting

BEIRUT (AP) -

Russia acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that it pulled the families of its diplomats out of Syria long ago, and rejected suggestions that the recent evacuation of dozens of its citizens marks the start of a larger rescue effort.

Inside Syria, fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad raged around the capital Damascus and in the north of the country, killing at least 60 people, including six members of a single family who died in a government rocket attack, activists said.

Russia, a close Damascus ally for decades, has continued to be the main protector of the Assad regime since the start of the Syrian uprising, shielding it from U.N. sanctions over a bloody crackdown. Moscow also continued to provide Assad with weapons even as the uprising morphed into a civil war, adding to massive arsenals of Soviet and Russian weapons Damascus has received over previous decades.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on the international community to declare the Syrian regime’s bombardment of its own citizens a war crime.

“There should be a clear signal to the Syrian regime that what they have been doing, bombarding cities by airplanes, is a war crime,” Davutoglu said. “The silence of the international community is killing people,” he added.

Once a Syrian ally, Turkey has become one of the regime’s harshest critics, and now shelters many of the opposition activists and defectors, including army officers, who have switched to the rebel side.