Three Russian naval ships were sailing toward Syria in the eastern Mediterranean on Friday and a fourth was on its way, the Interfax news agency reported, citing a source at navy headquarters.
Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov said Thursday that Russia was boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, but primarily in order to organize a possible evacuation of Russians from Syria. He did not say how many vessels were being sent.
The prospect of increased Russian naval presence near Syria has stoked fears of a larger international conflict if the United States orders airstrikes over an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital. The U.S. already has numerous war ships in the Mediterranean.
Two Russian amphibious landing vessels and a reconnaissance ship have passed through the Dardanelles strait, according to the report carried by Interfax, a privately owned agency known for its independent contacts within Russia's armed forces.
Three Russian war ships were seen sailing through the Bosporus in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday. It was not immediately clear if they were the same three vessels, although that seemed likely.
Interfax reported that another landing ship had left the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Friday morning and was to pick up a “special cargo” in Novorossiysk before sailing toward the eastern Mediterranean. The state RIA Novosti news agency also said that the landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov would be headed toward Syria after picking up cargo in Novorossiysk, which it said would take several days.
The three ships reported to have passed through the Dardanelles are the Novocherkassk and Minsk landing vessels and Priazovye reconnaissance ship.
The Defense Ministry said it was unable immediately to confirm the ships' departure.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday, warning the US and its allies against striking any chemical weapons storage facilities in Syria.
Meanwhile, the UN nuclear watchdog has received a request from Russia to assess the impact if a missile were to hit a small Syrian reactor and is considering the issue, the Vienna-based agency said on Friday.
Russia said this week a military strike on Syria could have catastrophic effects if the research reactor near Damascus that contains radioactive uranium was struck, “by design or by chance.”.
It called on the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to urgently assess the risk as the United States considers military action to punish Syria's government for an alleged gas attack.
“I can confirm that the IAEA has received a formal request from the Russian Federation. The agency is considering the questions raised,” IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in an e-mail, giving no further detail.
Russia said nearby areas could be contaminated by highly enriched uranium and that it would be impossible to account for the nuclear material after such a strike, suggesting it could fall into the hands of people who might use it as a weapon.
Nuclear experts say the so-called Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR), a type of research reactor that is usually fuelled by highly enriched uranium, is small and that any radioactive fallout may pose a local hazard.
The amount that such a reactor usually holds, about 1 kilogram of highly enriched uranium, is less than the 25 kilograms that would be sufficient to build a bomb, they say.
One Western diplomat in the Austrian capital played down the issue. “It is very unlikely that something like this happens, and the quantity which is in this research reactor is very small,” the envoy said. “I have the feeling that the agency does not perceive this as a very grave concern.”
Moscow has been the most powerful ally of Assad, shielding him from tougher UN resolutions and warning that any Western military attack on Syria would raise tension and undermine efforts to end the country's civil war.
In 2007, Israel bombed a desert site in Syria that US intelligence reports said was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor geared to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Syria said the site, at Deir al-Zor, was a conventional military facility.