Russian warplanes continued bombing in Syria and "fewer than 10" departed the region following President Vladimir Putin's stunning announcement that his forces had accomplished their mission and a partial withdrawal had begun, Pentagon officials said.
"We have seen some Russian aircraft depart Syria and return to Russia but we have not seen a large contingent of Russian forces" pulling out, said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. "So we'll have to wait and see like everybody else what the Russians do in regard to President Putin's reference to a partial withdrawal."
Cook said that the remaining Russian aircraft carried out airstrikes Tuesday. He did not say how many strikes were conducted or specify where the targets were located, but said that the airstrikes appeared to be aimed at areas controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"I'm not aware that any of these strikes technically violated" the Feb. 27 cessation of hositilities" that was agreed to earlier this month by the U.S., Russia and other nations through the mediation of special United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura. The cessation of hostilities excluded ISIS and the Al-Qaeda- affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
Cook said he could not give a figure on the number of Russian planes that have left Syria but "fewer than 10 is what we've seen." Russia was believed to have 45-50 warplanes in Syria, including advanced Su-34 bombers, Su-24M bombers and Su-25 attack aircraft.
Most of them have been flying out of the Russian-controlled Hmeymim airbase, also known as Khmeimim, near the northwestern city of Latakia. Despite the announced withdrawal, Russia has said that it will maintain control of the Hmeymim airbase and the small Russian naval base near Latakia that has been its only base in the region for decades.
Putin's announcement initially appeared to catch the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as much off guard as the West but a Syrian official later claimed that al-Assad had been kept in the loop.
"We were not surprised because the decision was made in coordination and consultation with us," Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to al-Assad told CNN.
"We knew beforehand that this is what was going to be announced because the Russians came here to achieve certain jobs, and we and they agreed that most of the jobs have been achieved," she said.
In making the announcement Monday, Putin said that "the task that was assigned to the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces as a whole has achieved its goal."
Putin's move came as Syria entered its sixth year of a civil war that has claimed at least 250,000 lives, sent more than four million refugees into neighboring countries and caused a refugee crisis in Europe.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that he would go to Moscow next week to meet with Putin to discuss the way ahead but added that "we have reached a very important phase in this process."
In a statement Tuesday, Russia's Ministry of Defense said that its troops in Syria were loading equipment and gear into cargo planes to prepare for the withdrawal.
The ministry said that the warplanes leaving Syria would be accompanied by military transport aircraft and would be making stops at airfields in Russia for refueling, as some were homebased more than 3,000 miles from Syria.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com