Russia starts military withdrawal from Syria as fighter jets prepare to return home

Move comes just a day after President Putin ordered an end to the five-month air campaign bolstering President Bashar al-Assad's forces

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The Independent Online

Russia has started preparing its fighter jets to return home from an air base in Syria, according to its defence ministry.

The move comes a day after Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's military to withdraw its forces, timing his move to coincide with the resumption of Syria peace talks in Geneva – and the fifth annviersary of the beginning of the country's civil war.

The ministry says Russian personnel are currently loading equipment and material on cargo planes and getting ready for the withdrawal, which marks an end to Russia's five-and-a-half-month air campaign. 

The ministry did not indicate when the first planes are scheduled to leave. 

Overnight, Mr Putin and US President Barack Obama shared a "frank and business-like" exchange on the phone about Russia's decision.

In a statement about the phone call, the White House said Mr Obama told Mr Putin he welcomed the “much-needed reduction in violence” since the cease-fire took effect late last month. But the US president also noted the Syrian regime's continued “offensive actions” threaten to break the deal and could undermine plans for a United Nations-led political process.

“The President underscored that a political transition is required to end the violence in Syria,” the White House said.

A Russian soldier guards a jet parked at Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Russian warplanes have mostly stayed on the ground since the cease-fire began

In a claim given a wary welcome by the Syrian opposition, Mr Putin yesterday said that the campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad had "achieved its aims", and ordered his Foreign Minister to "intensify" Moscow’s role in peace talks that have resumed in Geneva.

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 withdrawal of "the main part of our military contingent" but said a Russian airbase and naval facility in the country would continue to operate. 

The Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Mr Assad had agreed to the decision following a telephone conversation with Mr Putin. Syria’s state news agency quoted the Syrian President as saying that the collaboration between Russian and Syrian forces has secured "victories against terrorism and returned security to the country". 

While its intervention was officially launched to combat terrorist groups, Russia has been widely accused of using a relentless air campaign to target more moderate rebel groups as well as hundreds of civilian targets including schools and hospitals.