MOSCOW (AP) — Russian combat engineers arrived Thursday in Syria on a mission to clear mines in the ancient town of Palmyra, which has been recaptured from Islamic State militants in an offensive that has proven Russia’s military might in Syria despite a drawdown of its warplanes.
The Defense Ministry said the sapper units were airlifted to Syria with equipment including state-of-the art robotic devices to defuse mines at the 2,000-year-old archaeological site. Russian television stations showed Il-76 transport planes with the engineers landing before dawn at the Russian air base in Syria.
Sunday’s recapture of Palmyra by Syrian troops under the cover of Russian airstrikes was an important victory over Islamic State militants who operated a 10-month reign of terror there.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military’s General Staff said Russian military advisers had helped plan and direct the Syrian army’s operation to recapture Palmyra.
He said Russian warplanes had flown about 500 combat missions from March 7 to March 27, striking 2,000 targets around Palmyra, including artillery positions and fortifications. The Russian jets also hit IS militants as they tried to flee toward their strongholds of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, Rudskoi added.
The high number of sorties flown in support of the offensive on Palmyra demonstrated Russia’s ability to provide strong backing to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military despite a partial pullout of Russian combat jets from Syria earlier this month. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the drawdown should help the Syria peace talks that began in Geneva, but he has vowed to continue fighting IS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
A Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire in Syria that began on Feb. 27 has largely held, but the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front have been excluded from it. Rudskoi said the truce helped the Syrian military intensify its operations against those two rebel groups.
While some Russian warplanes were sent back home after a heavy-duty service in the air campaign that began on Sept. 30, the Russian military have deployed new weapons at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority. The Russians tested their latest helicopter gunship, the Mi-28, for the first time in combat.
Rudskoi emphasized that the Russian jets used precision weapons to avoid any damage to Palmyra’s archaeological treasures.
He said Russian sapper teams will now have to search more than 180 hectares (445 acres) of both historic and residential areas in Palmyra for mines. He added the job is even more difficult because, along with standard military mines, the area is littered with a large number of booby traps and other self-made explosive devices.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday urged other nations to join the effort of clearing Palmyra from mines.
Rudskoi emphasized that the seizure of Palmyra had strategic importance due to its location at the junction of major highways.
“The restoration of the Syrian army’s control over Palmyra will make it significantly more difficult for the bandit groups to regroup and move their resources between Syria’s northern and southern regions, and it will also significantly weaken their capability around Damascus and Aleppo,” he said.
He added that losing areas rich in natural resources will hurt rebels’ ability to buy weapons and ammunition and pay their forces.
The operation to recapture Palmyra highlighted Russian military deployments to the front lines to assist the air power.
Russian television stations showed reports Thursday about Alexander Prokhorenko, a Russian military officer who helped direct Russian airstrikes around Palmyra. He died when he was surrounded by IS militants.
Prokhorenko became the fifth serviceman killed in action in Syria, according to Russian statements. A Russian pilot whose plane was downed by Turkey in November was shot dead as he was parachuting down, a marine was killed on a mission to rescue the pilot’s crewmate, a military adviser serving alongside the Syrian army died in shelling by militants and another soldier was killed on a reconnaissance mission. One soldier at the Russian base killed himself, officials said.
A senior tank officer and several artillery officers were among the Russian servicemen whom Putin recently awarded with medals for their valor in Syria.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.