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Russia begins Syria withdrawal as peace talks enter second day

AFP , Tuesday 15 Mar 2016
This file photo taken on February 16, 2016 shows a general view shows Russian fighter jets on the tarmac at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria (Photo: AFP)
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Russia began withdrawing its forces from Syria on Tuesday, a move hailed as a potentially "positive step" for a new round of UN-backed peace talks seeking to end the conflict.

Warplanes at Moscow's Hmeimim air base in Syria were being loaded with military equipment and prepared to fly back to Russia, the defence minister announced, after President Vladimir Putin said their military goal had been "on the whole" completed.

Putin had on Monday ordered the withdrawal of "the main part" of Russia's forces after talks with long-standing ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The surprise move won backing from Angola's Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins, who holds the Security Council's rotating presidency this month.

"The decision just announced today by the Russian president -- that's a positive step," he said. "That's what we like to see."

But hopes for a breakthrough at the Geneva talks remained remote with both sides locked in a bitter dispute over Assad's future.

As the talks enter its second day, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was expected to hold his first official meeting with the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), who have repeatedly said that Assad could not be part of Syria's political future.

But the withdrawal of the Russian troops -- which began airstrikes in support of the regime in September, sparking condemnation from Western powers -- is expected to put more pressure on Assad to negotiate during the Geneva talks.

"If the announcement of a withdrawal of Russian troops materialises, this increases the pressure on President Assad to finally negotiate in a serious way in Geneva a political transition which maintains the stability of the Syrian state and the interests of all populations," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin also said the Kremlin's move would boost chances of a diplomatic solution to the conflict now in its sixth year that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.

The White House said President Barack Obama had spoken to Putin following Russia's announcement, and discussed the "next steps required to fully implement the cessation of hostilities".

But US officials offered a more cautious initial assessment of the Kremlin's decision.

"At this point, we are going to see how things play out over the next few days," a senior administration official told AFP.

Russia began its airstrikes in support of Assad's forces in September, a move that helped shore up the regime's crumbling forces and allow them to go on the offensive.

Russia sent more than 50 warplanes to carry out thousands of strikes across Syria arguing that it was targeting "terrorist" groups including Islamic State jihadists.

The intervention was slammed by the West and its regional allies, who insisted that Moscow was mainly bombing more moderate rebels fighting Assad.

A temporary ceasefire between Assad's forces and opponents in the country introduced on February 27 has largely held, but does not cover the IS and Al-Nusra Front groups.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Moscow's Hmeimim air base and its Tartus naval facility would remain functioning and that some military contingents would stay behind.

He did not however give any details on how many soldiers would stay in Syria, nor whether Russia's S-400 air defence systems would remain in the country.

Syria's main opposition welcomed the Kremlin's withdrawal announcement, but said it would wait and see what impact the order would have on the ground.

"We must verify the nature of this decision and its meaning," Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the opposition HNC, told reporters in Geneva.

As the Syrian delegations arrived in Geneva over the weekend, Damascus warned that any discussion about removing Assad would be a "red line".

Top Western diplomats immediately condemned the comment from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem as divisive and provocative.

After his first official meeting with the regime on Monday, UN envoy de Mistura told reporters that "strong statements (and) rhetoric" were part of every tough negotiation and that his initial discussions with government representative Bashar al-Jaafari were "useful".

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