Russia says it eliminated Syria rebels who attacked its base
(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin). A Russian officer stands next to drones that attacked the Russian air base in Syria and were captured by the Russian military are displayed at a briefing in the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2...
(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin). one of drones that attacked the Russian air base in Syria and were captured by the Russian military is displayed at a briefing in the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Saturday's, Jan.6, 201...
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) - The Russian military said Friday it has eliminated a group of rebels that had attacked Russia's air base in Syria.
The Russian Defense 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 Defense 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 Defense Ministry said it captured three drones and presented a pair of them at Thursday's briefing, arguing that their crude appearance disguised state-of-the art internal guidance systems that are jam-proof and allow for precision strikes.
It said the drones were launched from al-Mouazzara in Idlib, over 50 kilometers (more than 30 miles) 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.
Moscow has staunchly backed Syrian President Bashar Assad while Ankara has supported his foes, but they struck a deal last year to set up de-escalation zones. The agreement that also involved Iran has helped reduce fighting and warm ties between Russia and Turkey.
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 de-escalation zones.
"We know who they were and how much they paid for that provocation," Putin said.
The Defense 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 Pentagon strongly denied any involvement.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova also accused Washington of working behind the scenes to thwart a meeting of Syrian opposition groups Russia plans to host in Sochi in late January.
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