US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Russia next week to discuss the Syria crisis, Washington has said, after Moscow began withdrawing most of its forces from the country.
Kerry said he would hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to “try to take advantage of this moment,” which he described as the best opportunity in years to end the bloodshed.
Russia’s withdrawal has spurred hopes for peace talks being held in Geneva to try to end Syria’s brutal five-year conflict, which has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.
Putin ordered the “main part” of Russia’s forces out of Syria on Monday, but pledged to keep some air and naval bases in the war-torn nation.
A senior official said yesterday strikes would also continue against “terrorist targets”, and a monitoring group said Russian aircraft had struck the Islamic State group around the ancient city of Palmyra.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura described the withdrawal as a “significant development” for the talks, after the regime and rebel delegations submitted their roadmaps for a political solution.
“We hope (this) will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations,” he said.
The White House said “the earliest indications are that the Russians are following through” on the withdrawal, and some Russian aircraft had left Syria.
Kerry is expected to go to Moscow some time after yesterday when he returns from a trip to Cuba.
“As we mark the fifth anniversary of the start of this horrific war, we may face the best opportunity that we’ve had in years to end it,” he said.
“I will be travelling next week to Moscow... to discuss how we can effectively move the political process forward and try to take advantage of this moment.”
The first of Russia’s warplanes to leave Syria received a hero’s welcome at an airbase outside the city of Voronezh, where they were greeted by a ceremonial flypast and dozens of cheering supporters.
Pilots were tossed in the air as they disembarked, before being given a traditional present of a loaf of bread and salt, while a robed Orthodox priest offered them an icon to kiss.
Some governments expressed hope the Russian move could pressure its long-time ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate - although the Kremlin has denied that was its intention.