Russia says rebel attackers killed
MOSCOW — The Russian military said Friday it has eliminated a group of rebels that had attacked Russia’s air base in Syria.
The Russian Defence Ministry said it tracked down the rebels with drones and other intelligence assets and struck them with artillery while they were getting into a minibus in the northwestern province of Idlib.
It said in a statement that the Russian military also destroyed a rebel facility for assembling drones in Idlib.
The mortar shelling of the Hemeimeem air base killed two Russian servicemen on New Year’s eve, according to the Defence Ministry. It said that warplanes weren’t hit, but the Russian business daily Kommersant reported that seven aircraft were damaged beyond repair.
Last weekend, rebels also launched a drone attack on Hemeimeem and a Russian naval base in Tartus, which was repelled by the Russian military. The raid involving 13 drones was the first such attack since Russian launched its campaign in Syria in September 2015.
The mortar shelling and the drone attack came just weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a victory in Syria and ordered a partial troop pullout from the country.
The Defence Ministry said the drones were launched from al-Mouazzara in Idlib, over 50 km away from the Russian bases. The province has become the key rallying point for various rebel factions after Syrian government forces reclaimed control over large swathes of territory thanks to Russian air cover.
The drone attack heightened tensions between Russia and Turkey, which wields significant influence with rebel groups in Idlib.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the issue Thursday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and said after the call that he’s convinced that Turkey’s leadership had nothing to do with the attack. He blamed forces he wouldn’t identify for staging the attack in order to derail the agreement on deescalation zones.
“We know who they were and how much they paid for that provocation,” Putin said.
The Defence Ministry has earlier referred to the “strange coincidence” of a U.S. military intelligence plane allegedly barraging over the Mediterranean near the Russian bases when the attack took place.
The U.S. denied any involvement.
A Syrian family cooks a meal amidst the rubble in Raqqa, the former capital of Islamic State in Syria, on Friday.