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Russia begins its partial withdrawal from Syria

© POOL/AFP/File | Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Russia's airbase in Syria

MOSCOW (AFP) - 

The first group of Russian troops deployed to Syria returned home on Tuesday, the army said, beginning a partial withdrawal announced by President Vladimir Putin.

"The battalion of military police from the southern military district (of Russia) deployed to the Syrian Arab Republic has been flown by two military planes to Makhachkala (the capital of Dagestan) airport," the Russian army said in a statement.

State television broadcasted images of soldiers marching out of the aircraft onto a sunny runway in the small republic in Russia's North Caucasus.

The crews of Tu-22M3 bombers also returned to a military airport in North Ossetia before flying out to their permanent bases, the army said.

On a visit to Syria on Monday, Putin ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the war-torn country, saying their task had been largely completed.

It was the third announcement of a partial withdrawal since troops were deployed in 2015. Putin did not clarify how many soldiers will be returning home this time.

Putin, who announced last week he would seek a fourth term in a poll in March, was welcomed at Russia's Hmeimim airbase by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on his unannounced stopover.

Russia first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, staging air strikes in support of its ally Damascus targeting both the Islamic State group and other jihadists as well as rebels fighting government troops.

The size of the Russian deployment in Syria is not known but independent Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer has told AFP that up to 10,000 troops and private contractors could have taken part in the conflict.

More than 340,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad's rule that sparked a brutal crackdown.

On Thursday, Moscow announced a "total liberation" of Syrian territory from IS, even though the jihadist group still controls several pockets in the country.

Putin said both Russia's airbase Hmeimim and naval facility in Tartus would continue to function.

The Russian president made the Syria stopover, the first by a Russian head of state since president Dmitry Medvedev visited in 2010, en route to Egypt, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

© 2017 AFP