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Russia shows military might in Syria ahead of peace talks

January 20, 2016 5:39 A.M.

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

Helicopter gunships were sweeping 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 nearly 6,000 missions. The number is impressive 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 Tuesday that over the previous four days Russian warplanes had flown 157 sorties striking 579 targets in six Syrian regions, and the pace showed no sign of letting up Wednesday.

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.

The Russian military has said it was 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 odnance includes bunker-buster bombs capable of piercing seven meters (23 feet) of rock to destroy underground facilities, Konashenko said. 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.

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 about 40 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 Wednesday to try to resolve the differences over who is eligible to join the U.N.-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 (240 miles) 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.

Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press

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