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Armenia Sends Deminers To Syria As Part Of Russia-Backed Mission

Armenian sappers, medical personnel, and others attend a ceremony at the Yerevan airport before traveling to Syria.
Armenian sappers, medical personnel, and others attend a ceremony at the Yerevan airport before traveling to Syria.

The Armenian Defense Ministry says Yerevan has sent a team of demining experts and other personnel to war-ravaged Syria as part of a Russia-backed mission.

Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisian said a team of 83 mine-clearing sappers, medical personnel, and security officers arrived on February 8 and will focus on the city of Aleppo, in northern Syria.

He stressed that the personnel will not be involved in the fighting taking place in the Middle East country. Syria's seven-year civil war has left more than 400,000 people dead, displaced millions, and devastated many historic sites across the country.

"Armenian specialists will carry out humanitarian activities related to humanitarian demining, mine awareness of the population, provision of medical assistance in Aleppo, exclusively outside the zone of combat operations," Hovhannisian wrote on Facebook.

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians lived in Aleppo prior to the war. Many have fled, including thousands to Armenia.

Syrian government forces regained control of Aleppo in December 2016 after a long, devastating campaign of siege and bombardment against rebels who had held the eastern side of the ancient city for more than four years.

The Syrian conflict began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011. Russia and Iran have given crucial support to President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and Turkey have backed differing antigovernment fighters.

Russia will transport the Armenian team to Syria and provide logistical support, Hovhannisian said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on February 8 thanked his Armenian counterpart, Defense Ministry Davit Tonoyan, for deploying the personnel to Syria.

"You were the first to respond to our call to provide assistance to the Syrian people," he said.

Some Armenian politicians, however, criticized the move, with the Sasna Tsrer All-Armenian Party warning that too close military ties with Russia in Syria could hurt Armenia's interests and undermine its security.

Yerevan has traditionally had close ties with Moscow, and the Russian military has a base in Armenia.

But with the ouster of pro-Russian Armenian leader Serzh Sarkisian and the assumption of power of former opposition leader Nikol Pashinian, some questions have arisen about Yerevan's commitment to Moscow.

Pashinian has vowed to retain good relations with Russia, but he has also spoken of desires to increase the South Caucasus state's ties with the United States and Europe.

Yerevan has also contributed personnel to U.S.-backed missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, AP, and Interfax
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