Russia Withdraws Request to Refuel

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Russia on Wednesday withdrew its request to refuel in Spain a fleet of Russian warships, amid pressure from Britain and NATO who raised concerns that the ships could be used to ramp up air attacks in Syria.

Vasily Nioradze, spokesman at the Russian embassy in Madrid, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the request has been canceled, but he gave no details.

The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a task group of support vessels have steamed through the North Sea and English Channel in recent days heading to the Mediterranean Sea. Britain piled diplomatic pressure on NATO ally Spain earlier Wednesday, expressing concern that Madrid was considering refueling the warships.

U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said on Wednesday "we would be extremely concerned if a NATO member should consider assisting a Russian carrier group that might end up bombing Syria."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at a meeting of Alliance defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday, said the deployment raises concerns that air assaults could increase in Syria, notably in the besieged city of Aleppo.

Blaming Russia for exacerbating a humanitarian disaster there, Stoltenberg said that "men, women and children are dying every day, killed by disgraceful attacks on their homes and even their hospitals."

He noted that all 28 allies are aware of NATO's concern that the Russian ships could be used by Russia as a platform to bomb Aleppo and elsewhere in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Before Russia withdrew the request, Spain had said it was reconsidering whether to allow the flotilla to refuel in its North African enclave of Ceuta.

The Spanish foreign ministry said in a statement that Russian Navy ships have been stopping in Spanish ports for years and that requests "are approved case by case, depending on the characteristics of the vessel."