(RIA Novosti) - About a dozen Russian warships are converging on the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden as part of a large-scale strategic exercise, a high-ranking representative the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces said on Tuesday.
“This part of the world’s oceans is very important from the point of view of Russia’s geopolitical interests, including the fact that the Russian Navy has a logistical base here [in Syria],” he said.
The warships will conduct air-defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine drills and call at some foreign ports, including Tartus in Syria, he said.
He declined to specify whether the large landing ships were carrying military equipment for Syria.
“The main aim of sending the ships to the Mediterranean is to accomplish the missions set by the navy command, conduct exercises and show the flag,” he said.
On Monday, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov dismissed media reports there were commando units and military equipment for Syria on board some of the warships.
A naval task force from Russia’s Northern Fleet left the Severomorsk base last Wednesday and set course for the Horn of Africa on a new anti-piracy mission, the Defense Ministry said.
It includes the large antisubmarine ship Severomorsk, the salvage tug Altai, and the tanker Dubna, as well as a contingent of naval infantry subunits. The force will travel the length of the Mediterranean, pass through the Suez Canal and relieve the Pacific Fleet task force that has been there on an anti-piracy mission since November.
A Baltic Fleet task force set sail last Tuesday for the eastern Mediterranean where it will relieve a group of Black Sea warships. The force includes the frigate Yaroslav Mudry, the large landing ships Kaliningrad and Alexander Shabalin, the salvage tug SB-921 and the tanker Lena.
The new anti-piracy mission is expected to reach the region by mid-January.
Russia keeps a naval task force in the Gulf of Aden as part of the international effort to fight piracy off the Somali coast.
On Monday, large landing ships Azov and Nikolai Filchenkov from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet left Novorossiysk for the Syrian port of Tartus. The ships are carrying naval infantry units for protection during the voyage. They are expected to join the Black Sea Fleet task force comprising the missile cruiser Moskva and the frigate Smetlivy in the Aegean Sea on December 28 before heading to Tartus.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich confirmed on Monday that Russia has a contingency plan for evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria if necessary.
The conflict between Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition forces in Syria has claimed the lives of over 30,000 people since March 2011, according to UN figures.