Hero's welcome for first Russian warplanes back from Syria

AFP , Tuesday 15 Mar 2016

In this photo provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, a Russian pilot receives a hero's welcome on returning from Syria at an airbase near the Russian city Voronezh, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. (AP)

A ceremonial flypast, pilots tossed in the air in celebration and dozens of cheering supporters -- the first Russian warplanes on Tuesday returned home to a hero's welcome as part of the withdrawal of armed forces from Syria.

Several Su-34 strike fighters landed at an airbase outside the city of Voronezh some 580 kilometres (360 miles) southeast of Moscow after performing a flypast for commanders, relatives and friends.

Once the pilots disembarked from the aircraft they were tossed in the air in celebration as cheering supporters clutched national flags, flowers and balloons, national television showed in a live broadcast.

In accordance with tradition, the pilots received a loaf of bread and salt, while a robed Orthodox priest offered them an icon to kiss.

After a welcoming ceremony complete with official speeches, the aviators received flowers from women who shouted "congratulations."

"It was hard, but we coped -- the crews and the aircraft maintenance engineers coped," one of the pilots said.

"And we will fulfil any order in any corner of the planet."

Supporters spoke of their pride at the pilots' achievements.

"We are ready to kiss everyone and to hoist everyone shoulder high," one woman said.

Activists say, Russia's operation in Syria -- and the current partial pullback -- appear a world away from Moscow's apparent involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

Kiev and the West have accused Moscow of sending troops across the border to buttress the anti-Kiev insurgency.

Unlike those in the Syrian campaign, those who took part in the Ukraine fighting largely remained unsung: they received awards behind closed doors while those who died were buried in secret.

After Putin's surprise order to start pulling back troops, Russian television is now presenting the start of the withdrawal of forces from Syria as nothing short of a victory.

"We are leaving Syria with our shields -- not on them," a correspondent from the state-controlled NTV channel said proudly.

Critics say that after the start of Russia's Syrian campaign, Moscow's propaganda machine switched from nearly non-stop coverage of the Ukraine conflict to the Middle East, the country's first major military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

The jubilant scenes on Tuesday were in stark contrast to the sombre pullback in 1989 of the Soviet contingent from Afghanistan, a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 14,000 Soviet troops and is now seen in the country as a huge foreign policy blunder.

By contrast, in Syria the official death toll of Russian servicemen stands at just three.

At the airbase outside Voronezh, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, Viktor Bondarev, praised the pilots.

"Thanks to your work in Syria, international terrorism sustained significant losses," he said.

"The Syrian army received huge support."

Bondarev indicated Russia's full-scale military presence was no longer needed, saying the Syrian army, the opposition and other forces would be able to crush the remaining "terrorist gangs" -- apparently referring to Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front -- by themselves.

He also appeared to address accusations by rights groups and monitors that Russian forces have targeted civilians, saying every single Russian warplane in Syria hit its target and that Syrian civilians would not "hold grudges" against Moscow.

Putin launched a bombing campaign in Syria in September, saying Moscow needed to target Islamic State jihadists before they crossed into Russia.

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