Russia Denies It Sent Anti-Terror Unit to Syria

Russia's Foreign Minister today denied news reports that a team of Russian anti-terrorism troops had arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus.

At a press conference in Moscow today Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the reports "fairy tales" and said the Russian tanker Iman that arrived at the Mediterranean port had a security team on board only to guard against pirate attacks as it transited the Gulf of Aden.

"Like any other civilian support vessel taking part in the counter-piracy operation, this tanker is carrying security units that will not allow pirates to seize this tanker or any other civilian vessel in the Gulf of Aden in the event of an attack," the minister said, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

On Monday two Russian news outlets, Interfax and RIA Novosti, reported that the Iman had on board an anti-terror unit when it docked at Tartus, but did not say what their mission was. The RIA Novasti report was trumpeted with a banner headline on its Arabic language website.

Russia's position on Syria appears to have softened slightly this week. Yesterday Lavrov met with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross to discuss humanitarian efforts and endorsed the ICRC's call for a ceasefire. Today he signaled Moscow's willingness to cooperate in the United Nations Security Council.

Lavrov said his country was prepared to support a U.N. Security Council resolution as long as it did not include what he called an ultimatum for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Lavrov expressed support for former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's mission to end the violence. Russia has vetoed previous attempts to pass a resolution on Syria, saying it does not want a Libya-style military intervention.

"The U.N. Security Council's appropriate reaction - be it in the form of a statement or a resolution - requires at least two conditions. The [U.N.] Security Council should not approve them as an ultimatum, but it ought to continue working and approve them as a foundation for Annan's further efforts aimed at securing reconciliation between the Syrians, the government and all opposition groups," Lavrov said, according to Interfax.

Lavrov also confirmed a date is being negotiated for a visit to Moscow by Annan.