Russia shows military might in Syria ahead of peace talks

HEMEIMEEM AIR BASE, Syria -- Russian warplanes took off one after another with roaring thunder on Wednesday from their base on Syria's coast, which bustled with activity as Moscow pressed its air blitz days before scheduled peace talks.

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Helicopter gunships swept low around the base in the province of Latakia to prevent any possible attack. Even though the front line is dozens of kilometres away and the area around the base is tightly controlled, the Russian military methodically patrols the area 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 air campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, its warplanes have flown 5,700 missions. The number is remarkable for a compact 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 operations. Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that by afternoon Russian warplanes had flown about 40 sorties, with each aircraft hitting from three to five targets on a single run. In the early stages of the campaign, planes struck only one target during each mission.

In the time since The Associated Press first visited the Hemeimeem base in October, the military has put a second runway into service and has deployed powerful air defence weapons. The towering launch tubes and massive radar arrays of the long-range S-400 missiles could be seen at the edge of the base.

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 of hitting moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moscow also has rejected claims that its aircraft have hit civilians, insisting 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 extremists. Each target is verified through multiple intelligence sources, and every fifth target Russia hits is now chosen thanks to information from "patriotic" opposition forces, he said.

Konashenko said one particularly successful strike was conducted Tuesday in the 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 (23 feet) 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 Defence Minister Michael Fallon on Wednesday once again raised Western concerns about civilian deaths as a result of the Russian air strikes.

"I am very concerned at the number of civilian casualties through the use of unguided munitions; seems to be several hundred casualties now," he said in Paris during a meeting of Western defence ministers on how to combat the Islamic State group. "We've seen Russian strikes on opposition forces, on towns and villages, particularly in the south of Syria, which is simply prolonging the Syrian war, propping up Assad and is actually delaying the day on which we can all unite and properly get Daesh out of Syria."

Konashenkov dismissed such claims as "slanderous lies."

Across the tarmac, Russian soldiers loaded humanitarian supplies onto a Syrian Il-76 heavy transport plane to be parachuted over Deir el-Zour, where government-held areas of the city have been blockaded by extremists for more than a year. The United Nations says living conditions there have deteriorated significantly, with reports of up to 20 deaths because of malnutrition.

Konashenkov said more than 50 metric tons of relief supplies have been delivered to Deir el-Zour, parachuted in on cargo platforms provided by the Russian military that guarantee precise drops. The Syrian government controls the military airport in the city, and activists claim that the limited amount of aid that gets in typically goes to army officers and their allies, who sell it on the black market.

The Syrian government and the opposition are set to open talks in Geneva on Monday. The negotiations are meant to pave the way for a political settlement with a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.

International negotiators, including the United States and its allies and Assad's backers, Russia and Iran, have failed to agree on which of the myriad Syrian militant groups should be part of political talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday to try to resolve the differences over who is eligible to join the UN-mediated peace talks.

The most visible difference at the Hemeimeem base since the AP visited in October is the presence of the S-400 air defence systems. Russia deployed the powerful weapons, capable of hitting targets 400 kilometres away, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Syrian border on Nov. 24.

Turkey said it downed the jet after it violated its airspace for a few seconds, while Russia insisted its plane had stayed within Syrian airspace. It was the first time in more than half a century that a NATO nation had shot down a Russian plane.

The Russian military quickly sent the S-400s to the base and warned that it would fend off any threat to its aircraft. Moscow also punished Turkey by imposing an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sale of package tours.

To augment the air defences, Russia has kept a navy ship carrying long-range air defence missiles off the Syrian shore. And Russian fighter jets have begun escorting strike jets on their combat missions to fend off any air threat.

Milos Krivokapic in Paris contributed to this report


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