(From agencies)

The Russian Air Force will continue to conduct strikes on terrorist targets operating in Syria, the Defense Ministry said on Tuesday, one day after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal of forces from the war-torn republic, Moscow Times said.

Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said although the Russian air group achieved serious results in Syria, “it is too early to speak of a victory over terrorism … the air force is tasked with continuing attacks against terrorist targets.”

Following Putin’s order to pull out, the first group of Russian Su-34 bomber jets from Syria landed in Voronezh Tuesday.

The pilots were welcomed home by their family and friends with flags, balloons, and flowers.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the first group of Russian aircraft had left the base. The group included Tu-154 transport aircraft, and several Su-34 jets.

The withdrawal of the main part of the Russian Aerospace Force grouping from Syria will be carried out as scheduled, Aerospace Force Commander Viktor Bondarev told journalists in Voronezh.

Speaking of the operation in Syria that was launched by Russia on September 30, 2015, Bondarev said it was “a milestone event.”

“We have shown the whole world the training of Russian pilots is at the highest level. Not a single bombing raid missed the target,” Bondarev said at the special ceremony in honor of the first group of planes that returned home from Syria.

Earlier, President of the United States Barack Obama welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise decision to pull out Russia’s main forces from Syria.

Obama spoke with Putin on the progress of the ceasefire between the Syrian regime and its allies on the one hand and the armed opposition on the other, a White House statement said.

Putin’s decision to pull out troops will certainly serve as a good signal to all conflicting sides and create conditions for the start of a true peace process, it said.

The UN envoy for Syria  hailed Russia’s partial military withdrawal from the war-ravaged country, describing the move as a “significant development” and voicing hope it could positively influence peace talks.

“The announcement by President (Vladimir) Putin on the very day of the beginning of this round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva is a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations in Geneva aimed at achieving a political solution of the Syrian conflict and a peaceful political transition in the country,” Staffan de Mistura said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Russia’s pull-out will increase the pressure on the Assad regime to finally negotiate a peaceful political transition in Geneva.

The pull-out decision indicates Russia does not see an imminent need for resort to force in maintaining the Syrian ceasefire, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.

The New York Times said Kremlin’s surprise decision was conditioned by the rift between Moscow and Damascus.

“There have been growing signs of differences between Russia and the Syrian government over the Geneva talks, which Moscow has pressed hard for along with Washington,” it said.

Damascus, however, rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow, saying President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin.

The anti-Assad opposition expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying, “Nobody knows what is in Putin’s mind”.

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