Two Russian ships heading for a naval exercise off Syria this month are picking up munitions on their way to the Syrian port of Tartous, news agencies reported on Thursday.
Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main foreign protector during a 22-month uprising against his rule and is its biggest arms supplier. It leases a naval maintenance and supply facility at Tartous that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
A Russian General Staff source told the Itar-Tass news agency that the landing ship Kaliningrad had docked at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk to pick up munitions and another landing ship, the Alexander Shabalin, was due there for the same purpose.
It was not clear who the munitions were for, however.
"It's possible that the ships are delivering some kind of munition for the Syrians, [or] it's possible that they are carrying it to the Russian [naval base]," said Andrei Frolov, a naval expert at the Moscow-based military think tank CAST. If it's for the Syrians, he added, "it's unlikely to be something new. But it could be some parts for weapons systems. Possibly they are delivering munitions of some sort that were repaired in Russia."
The Defence Ministry declined to comment on the reports.
Itar-Tass cited an unnamed military source as saying that the warships would join at least seven others off Syria for what the Defence Ministry has said will be Russia's biggest naval exercise in decades.
Mr. Frolov said the scale of the manoeuvres was probably intended to underline Russia's interest in Syria, where it has repeatedly argued against outside intervention.
Russia, which has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Mr. al-Assad to end the violence from forces loyal to him, delivered nearly $1-billion (U.S.) in arms to Syria in 2011. CAST said it had been due to send half a billion dollars' worth last year.
Last summer, the United States criticized an attempted Russian delivery of repaired helicopters, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Russia's claims that its deliveries were unrelated to domestic violence "patently untrue".
The ship carrying the helicopters turned back when a British insurer cancelled its cover after being informed that the ship was carrying weapons. Russia promised to deliver the helicopters after reflagging the vessel.
In Syria, there were reports that forces loyal to Mr. al-Assad swept through a small farming village in the central part of the country this week, torching houses and shooting and stabbing residents in an attack that killed up to 106 people, including women and children, activists said Thursday.
The assault on Haswiyeh outside the city of Homs took place on Tuesday, but was only coming to light two days later as the scale of the killings became more apparent.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll in Haswiyeh at 106, and said some of the dead were "burnt inside their homes while other were killed with knives" and other weapons. It was not possible to confirm the activist reports because of severe reporting restrictions in Syria.
A government official in Damascus flatly denied the reports of carnage, saying no such killings took place in the area at all
However, the pro-government daily Al-Watan reported Thursday that Syrian troops advanced in the countryside of Homs "cleansing the villages of Haswiyeh and Dweir as well as their fields" from gunmen. It did not elaborate.