Russia says it is withdrawing its aircraft carrier and some other warships from the waters off Syria as the first step in drawing down forces in the war-torn country.
“In accordance with the decision of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, [President] Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defence Ministry is beginning to reduce its armed forces deployment in Syria,” TASS news agency quoted General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov as saying.
General Gerasimov said Russia’s naval fleet led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, which has been operating in the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast, would be the first to return from Syria.
Moscow has been a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Government and forces in the country’s devastating civil war.
Mr Putin said in December Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria under the terms of a ceasefire deal between Syrian opposition groups and the Assad Government.
— Sputnik (@SputnikInt) January 6, 2017
Airstrikes from the Admiral Kuznetsov began in mid-November — the first time the carrier has been used in combat.
It is not clear if the Kuznetsov’s warplanes will leave with it or if any will stay behind in Latakia, Syria.
Col-Gen Kartapolov said Russia still had sufficient air defence capabilities in its S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems deployed in Syria, AFP news agency reported.
The force reduction follows an order from President Putin on 29 December, days after Syrian government troops finally ousted rebels from the key battleground city of Aleppo in their biggest victory since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.
Russia and Turkey — a strong supporter of Syria’s moderate opposition — brokered the current ceasefire, which came into effect on December 30 last year.
The truce has mostly held but not altogether halted fighting in the country, and the Government and opposition have blamed each other for violations of the truce.
The ceasefire is meant to pave the way for peace negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana later this month.
The gathering could give new impetus for United Nations-mediated talks between Syria’s warring sides.
– with AP/Reuters