Russian forces have begun withdrawing from Syria, following an order by President Vladimir Putin that came as internationally brokered talks to try and resolve the five-year civil war there opened in Geneva.
Russian media showed the first group of Su-34 strike fighters returning to a Russian air base near Voronezh on March 15 and being greeted by Air Force commander General Viktor Bondaryov. Earlier, Russian state television showed three Su-34s taking off from Russia's air base in Syria.
But Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said at a ceremony honoring the departing pilots that remaining Russian forces in Syria still "have the task of continuing to strike terrorist targets," including the militant group Islamic State (IS) and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, as well as other UN-designated terrorist groups.
Pankov suggested it would be premature to speak in terms of a victory over terrorism.
The pullout comes more than five months after Moscow began its bombing campaign in Syria, aimed at bolstering the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and "fighting international terrorism."
Putin, who made the surprise announcement of the Russian pull-out on March 14, said the objectives of the operation had been "generally accomplished."
With the Geneva talks resuming for a second day on March 15, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow would not speculate on future actions in Syria.
"The main task today is to comprehensively assist a peace settlement," he said.
Russia launched its aerial campaign on September 30, saying it was targeting terrorists, including Islamic State fighters. But Western countries say Russia has spent much of its effort attacking anti-Assad forces, some of whom are supported by the United States and its allies in an effort to see Assad removed from power.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense committee in the upper house of Russia's parliament, said Moscow will keep about 1,000 military personnel at its two bases in Syria. He said some 800 troops are required to secure the naval base at Tartus and the Hmeimim air base in Latakia Province. In addition, air crews will remain to conduct reconnaissance missions.
The United States estimates that there were between 3,000 and 6,000 Russian troops in Syria before the beginning of the current drawdown, with around 50 jets and helicopters based at Hmeimim. Russia has also deployed the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system at the base, which served as an unmistakable warning to U.S. and allied aircraft also flying sorties over Syria.
In Washington, the White House said Russia gave no direct advance of the withdrawal.
"It's obviously a move that we'll be watching. The earliest indications are that the Russians are following through, but it's still too early to determine on this point what impact it will have on the broader situation," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Other European and United Nations officials welcomed the decision.
"If the announcement of a withdrawal of Russian forces materializes, this increases the pressure on President Assad to finally negotiate in a serious way," German Foreign Мinister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
It was also unclear whether the Kremlin had notified Assad of the withdrawal decision ahead of time. Assad's office said that he and Putin had spoken by telephone on March 14 and had agreed on the plan to reduce Russia's presence in Syria.
A statement released by Assad's office said the pullout reflected the "successes" in combating terrorism and regaining government control over key areas.
Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for Russia's lower house of parliament, said on Twitter that Russia's operations "alone have created conditions for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations in Syria."
More than 270,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.