Russia says it will continue air strikes against Isis and other rebels hours after it starts pulling troops out of Syria

Russia's deputy defence minister said the Russian air force has 'the task to continue carrying out strikes on terrorist facilities'

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The Independent Online

The Russian air force will continue bombing targets in Syria linked to Isis and other terrorist groups despite a partial withdrawal of ground troops, according to a senior defence minister.

A day after President Vladimir Putin announced "the main part" of the Russian military in Syria would begin to withdraw, deputy defence minister Nikolai Pankov said the Russian air force has "the task to continue carrying out strikes on terrorist facilities".

Speaking at a "mission accomplished" ceremony at Russia's air base in Hmeymin, Syria, he said: "Certain positive results have been achieved. A real chance has emerged to put an end to this long-running standoff.

"But it is still early to talk about victory over terrorism. The Russian aviation group has the task to continue carrying out strikes on terrorist facilities."

U.N., Syrian opposition welcome Russian withdrawal

Announcing his decision in a televised meeting with ministers at the Kremlin, Mr Putin said he had ordered "the main part of our military contingent" to withdraw, but said the Russian air base and naval facility in the country would continue to operate.

Russia began to prepare its fighter jets to return home from its air base in Syria on Tuesday morning. 

The Russian defence ministry said its personnel were loading equipment and material on to cargo planes and getting ready for the withdrawal.

While its intervention was officially intended to combat terrorist groups including Isis, Russia has been widely accused of relentlessly targeting moderate rebel groups.

It has also been criticised for striking hundreds of civilian targets, including schools and hospitals.

Catherine Ray, a spokeswoman for the EU's foreign service, told reporters: "Any steps that help achieve de-escalation of violence inside Syria and the prolongation of the cessation of hostilities is very important for the overall peace process."

Additional reporting by Reuters