Russia begins drawdown of forces from Syria
Russia's military on Friday said it has begun scaling down its deployment to Syria, with Moscow's sole aircraft carrier set to be the first to be withdrawn.
The drawdown comes ahead of scheduled peace talks later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan, and days after Russia and Turkey negotiated a nationwide ceasefire, which is largely holding.
"In accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces Vladimir Putin, the Russian defence ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria," Russian news agencies quoted military chief Valery Gerasimov as saying.
He added that a naval group headed by aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would be the first to leave the conflict zone.
"The tasks set for the aircraft carrier group during its military mission have been fulfilled," added Russia's main commander in Syria Andrei Kartapolov, agencies reported.
Moscow has been a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and forces in the country's devastating nearly six-year long civil war.
Since September 2015, Russia had boosted its firepower on land in Syria and off the coast in the Mediterranean in support of regime forces targeting the second city of Aleppo.
Troops loyal to Russia's ally Assad finally ousted rebels from the city last month in their biggest victory in more than five years of fighting, paving the way for the Kremlin to launch a fresh push for a political solution to the conflict.
Russian President Putin ordered a reduction in his forces in Syria on 29 December, as he announced a ceasefire between government and rebel forces that has since dampened down the fighting.
Moscow launched its bombing campaign in Syria in September 2015, helping to turn the tide in favour of Assad's ailing forces.
Putin already announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces in March 2016, but Moscow later had to ramp up air strikes as fighting intensified.