01/23/2013 01:08 EST | Updated 03/24/2013 05:12 EDT

First Russians evacuated from Syria land in Moscow, the possible start of a rescue mission

MOSCOW - The first Russian citizens evacuated from Syria arrived in Moscow overnight.

The evacuation of 77 Russians was the first organized by Russia since the start of the Syrian conflict nearly two years ago, and it may be the beginning of what could become a difficult and dangerous operation to rescue tens of thousands of Russians living in Syria as rebels gain momentum in their fight to oust President Bashar Assad's regime.

The Russians, mainly women married to Syrians and their children, were taken by bus to Beirut, Lebanon, and then flown to Moscow. The first of two planes landed shortly after 5 a.m. (0100 GMT) on Wednesday.

Rushana Vidova, who left the country with her Syrian husband Ali, said she is grateful to "Russia and all who helped us."

Russia's Emergencies Ministry, which sent the planes, said the passengers were being given medical examinations before leaving the airport. It was unclear if any of them had been hurt in the fighting, but an AP correspondent at the scene did not see anyone visibly wounded.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the overnight evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria "speaks to the continued deterioration of the security situation, and the violence that Assad is leading against his own people."


Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.