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Russian warships tracked by British navy as they head to Syria

Eight-strong task group, including flagship aircraft carrier, steams through North Sea on way to Mediterranean
The Admiral Kuznetsov was trailed by Royal Navy ships as it sailed through the North Sea (Reuters)

A Russian naval task group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was shadowed by British warships on Thursday as it made its way through the North Sea on route to Syria.

The eight-strong group was the biggest deployment of Russian naval assets seen off British shores in recent years, a Royal Navy spokesman told the AFP agency. 

Britain's HMS Richmond, a frigate, and the HMS Duncan air defence destroyer were monitoring the convoy, which included the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky and the destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov.

The Kremlin deployment comes weeks after Russia's defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the Admiral Kuznetsov, part of its Northern Fleet, would head for the eastern Mediterranean to boost its forces in the area.

Russia has mounted a campaign of air strikes for the past year on Syrian rebel groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and has deployed a naval contingent to back up its operation.

The British defence minister, Michael Fallon, said the Royal Navy would be watching closely.

"When these ships near our waters we will man-mark them every step of the way," Fallon said. "We will be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe."

A Royal Navy spokesman said the size of the Russian naval force was "unusual" but that the ships were "behaving very well", including booking areas for flying and calling up coastguard stations.

"The special part of this is definitely the aircraft carrier," the spokesman said. "If you just wanted to keep it safe, you put a destroyer and a frigate with it. If you wanted to show a bit of muscle, you do what they're doing now."

But he added: "I wouldn't say this is the full might of their fleet."

A NATO official said the deployment "does not inspire confidence" that Moscow is seeking a political solution to the five-year-old Syrian civil war. 

"There are plans in place for NATO navies to monitor the Russian ships as they head for the Mediterranean," the official told AFP.

The Russian fleet was monitored by Norwegian ships and planes as it sailed through international waters off Norway earlier this week and British defence ministry said the Royal Navy had expected the mini-armada to arrive in the North Sea later on Thursday.

Meanwhile, EU leaders meeting in Brussels were weighing sanctions against Assad supporterrs if they fail to stop carrying out attacks on civilians, according to a draft summit statement which did not mention Moscow explicitly, but sharpens the tone against Russia's role.

A "humanitarian pause" to the Syrian army's Russian-backed assault on rebel-held areas of Aleppo city took effect on Thursday but it was quickly tested by fighting on one of eight corridors opened up for civilians to escape the siege.