Russian combat engineers arrived in Syria on a mine-clearing mission in the ancient town of Palmyra after it was recaptured from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) this week.
On Thursday, the Defence Ministry said sapper units were airlifted to Syria with equipment including state-of-the-art robotic devices to defuse mines at the 2,000-year-old archaeological site.
Russian television stations showed Il-76 transport planes with the engineers landing before dawn at the Russian air base in Syria.
Sunday’s recapture of Palmyra by Syrian troops under the cover of Russian air strikes was an important victory over ISIL fighters, who controlled the area for 10 months.
|Syrian army recaptures ancient city of Palmyra from ISIL|
Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi of the military’s General Staff said Russian advisers helped plan and direct the Syrian army’s operation to recapture Palmyra.
He said Russian warplanes had flown about 500 combat missions from March 7 to March 27, striking 2,000 targets around Palmyra, including artillery positions and fortifications.
The Russian jets also hit ISIL fighters as they tried to flee towards their strongholds of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, Rudskoi added.
The high number of sorties flown in support of the offensive on Palmyra demonstrated Russia’s ability to provide strong backing to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military despite a partial pullout of combat jets from Syria earlier this month.
President Vladimir Putin has said the drawdown should help the Syria peace talks that began in Geneva, but he has vowed to continue fighting ISIL and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front group.
A Russian and US-brokered ceasefire in Syria that began on February 27 has largely held, but ISIL and al-Nusra Front have been excluded from it. Rudskoi said the truce helped the Syrian military to intensify its operations against those two rebel groups.
The Russian military has deployed new weapons at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority.The Russians tested their latest helicopter gunship, the Mi-28, for the first time in combat.
Rudskoi emphasised the Russian jets used precision weapons to avoid any damage to Palmyra’s archaeological treasures.
He said Russian sapper teams will now have to search more than 180 hectares (445 acres) of both historic and residential areas in Palmyra for mines.
He added that the job is even more difficult because, along with standard military mines, the area is littered with a large number of booby traps and other explosive devices.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday urged other nations to join the effort of clearing Palmyra from mines.
Rudskoi said the seizure of Palmyra had strategic importance because of its location at the junction of major highways.
“The restoration of the Syrian army’s control over Palmyra will make it significantly more difficult for the bandit groups to regroup and move their resources between Syria’s northern and southern regions, and it will also significantly weaken their capability around Damascus and Aleppo,” he said.
He added that losing areas rich in natural resources will hurt rebels’ ability to buy weapons and ammunition and pay their forces.
The operation to recapture Palmyra highlighted Russian military deployments to the frontlines to assist the air power.
Russian television stations showed reports on Thursday about Alexander Prokhorenko, a Russian military officer who helped direct Russian air strikes around Palmyra. He died when he was surrounded by ISIL fighters.
Prokhorenko became the fifth serviceman killed in action in Syria, according to Russian statements.
A Russian pilot whose plane was downed by Turkey in November was shot dead as he was parachuting down, a marine was killed on a mission to rescue the pilot’s crewmate, a military adviser serving alongside the Syrian army died in shelling by fighters and another soldier was killed on a reconnaissance mission.
One soldier at the Russian base killed himself, officials said.
A senior tank officer and several artillery officers were among the Russian servicemen whom Putin recently awarded with medals for their valour in Syria.