Russia forces begin withdrawal from Syria

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Moscow, March 15 (IANS) The Russian defence ministry on Tuesday announced that its airbase in Syria was preparing aircraft to return home following a surprise withdrawal order by President Vladimir Putin, media reports said.

Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu gave the order to withdraw from the Hmeimim base, in Latakia province and aircraft are being loaded up for long-range flights back to Russia, BBC reported.

Aircraft from the base would make the flight to Russia — more than 5,000 km — in small groups accompanied by the Il-76 transport planes with fuel stops at other Russian bases along the way, it added.

Su-24 tactical bombers, Su-25 attack fighters, Su-34 strike fighters and helicopters were returning home, Russian TV said.

The statement came a day after Putin announced the withdrawal of most Russian forces from Syria, timing his move to coincide with the resumption of Syria peace talks in Geneva.

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Russia began its campaign of air strikes in Syria last September.

However, Russia did not indicate when the first planes were scheduled to leave nor how many aircraft and troops would be withdrawn, Al Jazeera reported.

The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has never been revealed, but US estimates suggest it varies from 3,000 to 6,000 military personnel on the ground.

The Syrian presidency said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin spoke on the phone on Monday and jointly agreed that Russia would scale back its forces in Syria.

Putin said on Monday he hoped the withdrawal of Russian troops from Tuesday will be a stimulus for a political resolution of the conflict.

“I hope the decision will be a good signal for all conflicting parties. I hope it will sizeably increase trust of all participants in the process,” he said.

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Russian forces have killed more than 2,000 rebel fighters, including 17 rebel leaders, since the start of the operation.

Those Russian soldiers who remain in Syria will be engaged in monitoring the ceasefire regime, Putin added.

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