Russia begins reduction of armed deployment to Syria
MOSCOW - Russia's military on Friday said it has begun scaling back its deployment to Syria, with Moscow's sole aircraft carrier ordered to leave the conflict zone first.
"In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces Vladimir Putin, the Russian defence ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria," military chief Valery Gerasimov said in televised comments.
Gerasimov gave the command for the naval group headed by aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov -- which also includes the nuclear-powered Pyotr Veliky battlecruiser and the Severomorsk destroyer -- to begin preparations immediately to return to its home port in the Arctic Circle.
"The tasks set for the aircraft carrier group during its military mission have been fulfilled," added Russia's main commander in Syria, Andrei Kartapolov.
Aircraft on board the carrier conducted some 420 sorties and hit 1,252 "terrorist" targets during the two months that it was involved in the Syria mission, Kartapolov said.
He insisted that Russia still had sufficient air defence capabilities in Syria thanks to its S-300 and S-400 systems deployed in the war-torn country.
The Kuznetsov arrived off Syria in November as Russia boosted its firepower on land and in the Mediterranean to support regime forces targeting the second city of Aleppo.
During its deployment to Syria, the Soviet-built Kuznetsov suffered a series of embarrassing accidents, with military analysts questioning the tactical importance of the ageing vessel.
Troops loyal to Russia's ally Bashar al-Assad finally ousted rebels from Aleppo last month in their biggest victory in more than five years of fighting, paving the way for the Kremlin to launch a fresh push for a political solution to the conflict.
Russian President Putin ordered a reduction in his forces in Syria on December 29, as he announced a ceasefire between government and rebel forces that has since dampened down the fighting.
Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, are currently pushing for peace talks to be held later this month in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.
Moscow launched its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015, helping to turn the tide in favour of Assad's ailing forces.
Putin had already announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces in March 2016, but Moscow later ramped up its presence again as fighting increased.