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Russia denies large Syria evacuation amid fighting

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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.

Despite the escalating violence in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to play down the significance of the 77 Russian citizens who fled Syria a day earlier and returned to Moscow on two flights on Wednesday. He told reporters that about 1,000 Russians residing in Syria, mostly women married to Syrian men, contacted consular officials to express their interest in leaving the country. He said no large-scale evacuation of the tens of thousands of Russians still in the country was immediately planned.

However, Lavrov for the first time mentioned that families of Russian diplomats "left long ago." He did not provide further details, but said that the embassy in Damascus is functioning normally.

Russia has recently started to distance itself from Assad, and a top diplomat acknowledged last month that the rebels might win the civil war. But the evacuation was the strongest sign yet of Moscow's waning confidence in the ability of Assad to hold onto power as rebels gain momentum in their fight to oust the regime.

The fighting continued unabated inside Syria on Wednesday, with government airstrikes in the Damascus area and clashes and shelling in the southern province of Daraa and the central region of Homs, activists said.

In the northern province of Aleppo, a regime rocket hit the village of Abu Taltal, killing six members of a single family, including a man, his wife and their four children aged two to 11, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

Both groups rely on a network of activists on the ground and frequently report on government bombardment of rebel-dominated regions.

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.

Syria's conflict started 22 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly turned into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a brutal government crackdown.

Despite recent loses of army bases and large swathes of land in the north along the border with Turkey, the regime has managed to keep its grip on the country in large part due to Assad's airpower.

Also Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported that armed opposition groups appeared to have deliberately destroyed religious sites in mixed areas of northern Syria in the last two months of last year.

The New York-based group said investigations showed an armed opposition group destroyed two churches in the coastal region of Latakia and a Shiite Muslim place of worship in the northwestern province of Idlib. Evidence and witness testimony suggested that all three attacks took place after the areas fell to opposition control and government forces had left, the group said.

Assad's regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.

Mainly Sunni Islamic extremists have joined the rebels in their fight against Assad, including Jabhat al-Nusra. The U.S. says the group is linked to al-Qaida, and has declared it a terrorist organization.

Human Rights Watch previously documented the destruction and looting of a mosque in the town of Taftanaz in Idlib province by Syrian government forces.

"The destruction of religious sites is furthering sectarian fears and compounding the tragedies of the country, with tens of thousands killed," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Syria will lose its rich cultural and religious diversity if armed groups do not respect places of worship. Leaders on both sides should send a message that those who attack these sites will be held accountable."

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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