The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and four other ships in its strike group moved into the Red Sea early yesterday, US defence officials said, describing the move as “prudent planning” in case the ships are needed for military action against Syria.

The officials said the Nimitz entered the Red Sea around 6am, but the strike group had not received any orders to move into the Mediterranean, where five US destroyers and an amphibious ship remain poised for possible cruise missile strikes against Syria.

Moving the Nimitz into the Red Sea was aimed at putting more US assets in place if they are needed to support what US officials still describe as a limited attack against Syria after it used chemical weapons against civilians.

“It does place that strike group in a position to respond to a variety of contingencies,” said one official, who was not authorised to speak publicly.

Russia sending spy ship to Mediterranean

The nuclear-powered Nimitz is accompanied by the Princeton, a cruiser, and three destroyers – the William P. Lawrence, Stockdale and Shoup, according to the officials.

They said there had been no change regarding six US Navy ships now in the eastern Mediterranean, but military planners were reassessing the situation given a delay in the cruise missile strikes that had been expected this past weekend.

The US Navy doubled its presence in the eastern Mediterranean in the past week, effectively adding two destroyers to the three that generally patrol the region.

The destroyers are carrying a combined load of about 200 Tomahawk missiles, but officials say a limited strike on Syria could be accomplished with half that number.

Meanwhile Russia is sending a reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean, Interfax news agency reported yesterday.

The reconnaissance ship left Russia’s naval base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol late on Sunday on a mission “to gather current information in the area of the escalating conflict”, the Interfax report quoted an unidentified military source as saying.

The Defence Ministry declined immediate comment but Interfax said the vessel, the SSV-201 Priazovye, would operate separately from a Russian navy unit already stationed in the Mediterranean.

Last week, the ministry said new warships were being sent to the Mediterranean but described this as a routine rotation of ships under a permanent deployment which Moscow says is needed to protect national security interests.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said at the time that Moscow did not intend to be dragged into any military conflict over Syria.

Russia is a staunch backer of Assad in his war with rebels trying to topple him.

Russia reiterated yesterday that the US had not proved its allegations and that the chemical attack may have been staged by Syrian rebels to provoke outside intervention in the more than two-year-old civil war.

Lavrov said Russia remained unconvinced following a meeting between Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Moscow, and a senior Russian diplomat.