Returning Russian pilots receive hero’s greeting

Returning Russian pilots receive hero’s greeting

Russian SU-34 aircraft. Source: Wikimedia

The first group of Russian SU-34 aircraft withdrawn from Syria have returned to an air base in southern Russia to be mobbed by a jubilant crowd.

The withdrawal follows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement that his country’s objectives in Syria were largely completed. Some Russian troops would remain in Syria and air strikes were going to continue, Moscow said. Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s chief-of-staff, said the S-400, the most advanced air-defence system, would remain in Syria.

Between 200 to 300 service personnel, journalists and the public greeted the returning pilots, waving Russian flags, patriotic balloons and flowers. Two priests displayed a religious icon. At least six pilots were seen departing from the planes. They were mobbed and thrown in the air in celebration. A band played Soviet military songs, including the Stalin-era “March of the Aviators”, and the national anthem.

Putin’s withdrawal coincides with peace talks in Geneva, attended by Syria’s government and opposition representatives, and a sporadic ceasefire that only applies to certain areas of the war-torn state. The withdrawal has led the regime’s opponents to speculate that Moscow may be trying to press Damascus towards a political settlement. Syria, however, dismissed any talk of divides with its ally and said Moscow’s withdrawal was unrelated to the peace talks. A western diplomat said Putin would “now move to focus on the peace talks and this will put pressure on the Syrian government to negotiate”.

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said the withdrawal was “a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations”. A rebel group’s spokesman in Latakia, where fighting has continued throughout the peace negotiations, said he did not believe Moscow was changing policy. “We do not trust them,” said Fadi Ahmad of the First Coastal Division.

Russian bombing in the Syrian civil war has helped President Bashar Assad repel rebel forces. Putin’s interest in Syria is linked to its lease of a naval base in Tartus and it has forces at an air camp in Latakia. The talks in Geneva were held with US-Russian support to end the five-year civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people, created the Europe’s worst refugee crisis since 1945 and allowed for the rise of the so-called Islamic State.

The Russian air campaign that started in late September has targeted insurgents battling Assad in western Syria, helping Damascus and its allies, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to reclaim important ground near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.

Putin and US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone about Syria, with Moscow saying they “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement”.

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