Moscow, July 27 (IANS/RIA Novosti) A flotilla of Russian warships off the coast of Syria will not dock at a port leased by Moscow in the violence-stricken Middle East country, Russia's navy chief has said.
"The joint fleet flotilla will not enter the port of Tartus," Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov said. "It is carrying out military drills in the Mediterranean."
The flotilla comprises 10 warships, plus escort vessels. Chirkov also said the flotilla was carrying marines.
The navy said earlier this month that the deployment of the powerful task force was not linked to the current crisis in Syria, where thousands of people have been killed in the almost 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The Western Syrian port of Tartus is Russia's only foreign naval base outside the former Soviet Union. But Russian analysts have consistently played down the port's strategic importance, saying it is in reality little more than a refuelling stop.
But Chirkov said Thursday that Russia had no intention of giving up the base. He did not give further details or clarify how Russia would hold on to the base in the event of a pro-Western government coming to power in Syria.
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Alexander Fedosenkov, a Black Sea Fleet commander, said Russian warships in the Mediterranean are preparing for naval drills due in September, but are not carrying out any military tasks in Syria.
The statement came after representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an Istanbul-based opposition group, expressed concerns over the deployment of a Russian warship group to the Mediterranean, saying it was likely to aggravate the Syrian conflict and encourage President Assad to continue his crackdown on opposition groups.
Fedosenkov dismissed the allegations Thursday, saying: "We are not performing any tasks in Syria. The Russian Navy flotilla, which includes warships and other vessels from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets is preparing for the Kaskad-2012 drills."