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Russia says it starts Syrian drawdown with aircraft carrier

Russia says it starts Syrian drawdown with aircraft carrier

MOSCOW — Russia announced on Friday that it is withdrawing its aircraft carrier and some other Russian warships from the waters off Syria as the first step in a drawdown of its forces in the war-torn Mideast country.

According to Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier and accompanying ships are to be the first to leave.

The declaration comes a week after Russia and Turkey brokered a cease-fire in Syria, following a decisive Moscow-backed victory for the government of President Bashar Assad over rebels in the city of Aleppo.

It's also the second time Moscow has announced scaling back its military presence in Syria since Russia threw its military weight behind the Syrian government in September 2015.

Russia's support, with airstrikes and military advisers — along with the boosting of its arsenal and a naval base on the Syrian coast — changed the course of the civil war, now in its sixth year, in favour of Assad.

"In accordance with the decision by the supreme commander-in-chief (President) Vladimir Putin, the Defence Ministry is starting to downsize the grouping of armed forces in Syria," Gerasimov said.

He did not give further details on the force reduction, which follows an order by Putin on Dec. 29.

Last March, Putin also ordered the Russian military to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, timing his declaration with a brief cease-fire in place at the time, one that was brokered by Moscow and Washington, and the launch of peace talks that took place in Geneva.

The latest declaration appeared designed to cast Russia as a peace-maker.

"The successes of the Syrian armed forces in the liberation of Aleppo have created the necessary conditions for the peaceful settlement of the conflict," said Gerasimov. "I'm confident that it will lay the basis for the political settlement of the conflict."

Syrian forces' retaking of Aleppo last month and the subsequent cease-fire make Russian forces less critical to Assad at this juncture of the war — though it's unclear how extensive the drawdown might be.

Syria's army Chief of Staff Gen. Ali Ayoub visited the aircraft carrier on Friday, according to Syrian state television. He said Admiral Kuznetsov has become "part and parcel of the history of war on terrorism," according to Al-Ikhbariya TV. He added that "signs of victory" loom after all the Syria military sacrifices and "Russia's honourable position."

Airstrikes from the Russian aircraft carrier began in mid-November and marked the first time it was used in combat. The ship has so far lost two aircraft — an Su-33 fighter jet that crashed in the Mediterranean Sea in December as it returned to the carrier following a sortie over Syria. In November, a MiG-29 crashed into the sea while trying to land on the vessel.

Russia and Turkey, a strong supporter of Syria's moderate opposition, brokered the current cease-fire, which came into effect on Dec. 30. The truce has mostly held but not altogether halted fighting in the country, and the government and opposition have blamed each other for violations of the truce.

The cease-fire is meant to pave the way for peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital, later this month. The gathering could give new impetus for U.N.-mediated talks between Syria's warring sides. The truce, however, doesn't include areas controlled by the Islamic State group.

On Friday, Syria's Kurdish-led forces in the north of the country said they have taken control of a medieval castle perched on a hilltop over a strategic town held by IS militants, less than 32 kilometres (20 miles) from the self-declared capital of the extremist group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces gained control of Jaabar Castle, which dates back to the 11th century, following days of intense clashes with IS militants. Seizing control of the castle brings the Kurdish-led forces within 4 kilometres (2.4 miles) of the dam and Tabqa, the second most important town in the province, after the Islamic State group's de facto capital of Raqqa, SDF spokesman Talal Sillo told The Associated Press. He said the castle, which IS leaders have used for cover, was in good condition.

The castle sits on the northern bank of Assad Lake and overlooks the strategic Tabqa dam and town with the same name.

Tabqa Dam was constructed in the late 1960s with the help from the Soviet Union. It is believed to be Syria's largest and has created the largest water reservoir in the country.

"We try to take control of the dam with the least possible damage, so we are not depending heavily on airstrikes," said Sillo. The U.S.-led international coalition backs the SDF forces with airstrikes. Besides the dam, the town also houses a number of prisons. Sillo said there are intelligence reports that IS militants have begun transferring their captives from there to the city of Raqqa.


Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

Jim Heintz, The Associated Press