MOSCOW • Russia's Defence Ministry said yesterday that it will hold naval drills in the eastern Mediterranean as the West frets over a military build-up by Moscow in Syria.
The exercises, to be held this month and in October, will include three warships from Russia's Black Sea fleet, including the Saratov landing ship, the Moskva guided missile cruiser and the Smetlivy destroyer, the ministry said in a statement.
The drills will involve "40 combat exercises, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets", the statement said.
The ministry said that the Mediterranean drills - which were restarted in early 2013 - had been planned since the end of last year and did not link them to the conflict in Syria. Russia officially alerted the airport in Cyprus earlier this month through the international aviation authorities to divert aircraft from the area between the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has a naval facility, and Cyprus.
The United States has accused Moscow of sending troops, tanks and fighter jets to Syria in recent weeks, sparking fears that Russia could be preparing to join in fighting alongside longstanding ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian officials said this week that they have received new warplanes and sophisticated missiles from Russia, and some reports in Russia alleged that Moscow has dispatched soldiers to the war-torn country.
Russia, which has supported the Syrian regime throughout the 4½-year conflict which has claimed some 250,000 lives, says that any support is in line with existing military contracts and that personnel have been sent to train Syrian forces.