Russia withdrawing warships from Syrian waters
Aircraft carrier, other vessels start military drawdown, Moscow says
Russia announced on Friday that it is withdrawing its aircraft carrier and some other Russian warships from the waters off Syria as the first step in a drawdown of its forces in the war-torn Mideast country.
According to Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier and accompanying ships are to be the first to leave.
Gerasimov was quoted as saying by the state news agency Tass that "in accordance with the decision by the supreme commander-in-chief [President] Vladimir Putin, the Defence Ministry is starting to downsize the grouping of armed forces in Syria."
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Moscow has been a key supporter of President Bashar al-Assad's government and forces in Syria's devastating civil war.
Gerasimov did not give further details on the force reduction, which follows an order by Putin on Dec. 29.
Syrian forces' retaking of the city of Aleppo last month and a subsequent Russia- and Turkey-brokered ceasefire, in place for nearly a week now, make Russian forces less critical to Assad, but it is unclear how extensive the drawdown might be.
2 aircraft lost
Airstrikes from the Admiral Kuznetsov began in mid-November, the first time the carrier has been used in combat. It has lost two aircraft — an Su-33 fighter jet that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea in December as it returned to the carrier following a sortie over Syria. In November, a MiG-29 crashed into the sea while trying to land on the carrier.
Russia and Turkey, a strong supporter of Syria's moderate opposition, brokered the current ceasefire, which came into effect on Dec. 30. 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 Astana, Kazakhstan's capital, later this month. The gathering could give new impetus for UN-mediated talks between Syria's warring sides.