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Russia shows military might in Syria before of peace talks

Russia shows military might in Syria before of peace talks

HEMEIMEEM AIR BASE: Helicopter gunships sweep low around Russia’s air base on the Syrian coast and air-defence missile systems tower at the base’s edge as warplanes take off one after another. The sound is deafening.

Russia’s heavy airstrikes in Syria continued on Wednesday, days ahead of the hoped-for start of talks on how to end one aspect of the country’s five-year-old war, where government forces fight rebels, and extrmists including the militants Islamic State group (IS) have seized substantial stretches of territory.

Even though the front line is dozens of miles away and the area around the base is tightly controlled, the Russian military methodically patrols to make sure there is no ground threat. Two heavy transport planes were parked near the main terminal as soldiers toting assault rifles stood guard.

Since Russia launched its bombing campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, its warplanes have flown 5,700 missions. The number is remarkable for a force comprising just a few dozen warplanes.

The Russian military brought a group of Moscow-based reporters to the base on Wednesday to see the operation.

Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said, by the afternoon, Russian warplanes had flown about 40 sorties, with each aircraft hitting three to five targets on a single run. In the early stages of the bombing campaign, planes struck only one target during each mission.

Since journalists first visit by the Hemeimeem base in October, the Russian military has put a second runway into service and has deployed powerful S-400 air defence weapons. Asked how long the Russian air campaign may last, Konashenkov said only that Russia’s goal is to strike extremist infrastructure in support of Syrian government troops.

“They have shown some good results in defeating terrorist groups,” he said.

The Russian military has insisted it is targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists and has angrily dismissed Western accusations that it is hitting moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Moscow also has rejected claims that its aircraft have hit civilians, insisting that all casualties have been at extremist facilities away from populated areas.

Konashenko said Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes have retaken about 250 villages and towns from the extremists. He said each bombing target is verified through multiple intelligence sources and every fifth target Russia hits is now chosen thanks to information from “patriotic” opposition forces.

Konashenko said one particularly successful strike was conducted on Tuesday in Aleppo province, where a Russian Su-34 bomber hit a meeting of extremist leaders.

Russian ordnance includes bunker-buster bombs capable of piercing seven meters of rock to destroy underground facilities, Konashenko said.

Some of the bombs are laser-guided, but all Russian warplanes at the base are equipped with a sophisticated targeting system, allowing them to use even regular bombs with pinpoint accuracy, he said.

British Defense Minister Michael Fallon on Wednesday once again raised Western concerns about civilian deaths as a result of the Russian air strikes.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2016

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