Russia has withdrawn most of its strike aircraft from Syria, the US military said on Friday, adding that it was now entirely carrying out strikes in support of Syrian government forces “via artillery systems” instead of aircraft.
The statement contradicted a Russian statement the same day that it had flown 25 sorties by fighter jets against Islamic State group targets near the city of Palmyra in support of Syrian government forces.
“They still have helicopters and some transport aircraft. But what we’ve seen is that the majority of Russian strike aircraft have left Syria,” Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at the US military’s Central Command, told Pentagon reporters.
“In the last week, we have not seen any Russian aircraft conducting any strikes in Syria. And that any counter-ISIL (Islamic State group) strikes that may have been done, would have been – from a Russian standpoint – via artillery systems,” Ryder said.
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The Russian armed forces, however, asserted that its jets had flown 25 bombing raids daily to back up a Syrian government offensive to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists
Lt. General Sergei Rudskoi said on Friday that Russian aircraft based in Syria were conducting 20-25 sorties a day in support of the Syrian military’s offensive.
That was despite a Russian drawdown in Syria that President Vladimir Putin ordered this week in support of the Geneva talks.
Rudskoi told reporters in Moscow on Friday that the Syrian army has seized key hilltop points near Palmyra and has cut supply routes leading to the IS group-held city, adding that the Syrian army was close to taking control of the city.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, where they have been backing Moscow’s close ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The first Russian aircraft returned Tuesday to a hero’s welcome.
The US military, which was taken by surprise by the development, has remained skeptical of Putin’s intentions.
On Thursday, a Baghdad-based US military spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said there had been little change in Russian troop deployments on the ground.
There has been little movement of Russian ground forces, Ryder said, adding that Moscow has kept combat helicopters and some transport planes in Syria.
Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war on September 30 at Assad’s request, deploying about 50 combat aircraft.
It also sent more than 4,000 ground troops, artillery, tanks and about 30 combat helicopters.
The Russians have directed their operations mainly against Western-backed anti-government rebels while a US-led coalition has been waging an air campaign against the IS group.
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