Hemeimeem Air Base (Syria), Jan 21: Helicopter gunships sweep low around Russia's air base on the Syrian coast and long-range air-defence missile systems tower at the base's edge as warplanes take off one after another. The sound is deafening.
Russia's heavy airstrikes in Syria continued Wednesday, days ahead of the hoped-for start of talks on how to end one aspect of the country's five-year-old war, where government forces fight rebels, and militants including the extremist Islamic State have seized substantial stretches of territory.
Even though the front line is dozens of miles (kilometres) away and the area around the base is tightly controlled, the Russian military methodically patrols to make sure there is no ground threat. Soldiers toting assault rifles stood guard around the base as air force personnel bustled under the warplanes wings, attaching bombs and missiles for the next sorties.
Since Russia launched its bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, its warplanes have flown over 5,700 missions. The number is remarkable for a force comprising just a few dozen warplanes. The Russian military brought a group of Moscow-based reporters to the base on Wednesday to see the operation.
Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said, by the afternoon, Russian warplanes had flown about 40 sorties, with each aircraft typically hitting three to five targets on a single run. In the early stages of the bombing campaign, planes struck only one target during each mission.
Combat sorties continued after nightfall at the same high tempo, with speeding jets lighting up the night sky with their engine exhausts.
Since The Associated Press first visited the Hemeimeem base in October, the Russian military has put a second runway into service and has deployed powerful S-400 air defence weapons. Asked how long the Russian air campaign may last, Konashenkov said only that Russia's goal is to strike extremist infrastructure in support of Syrian government troops.
"They have shown some good results in defeating terrorist groups," he said. The Russian military has insisted it is targeting the Islamic State group and other extremists and has angrily dismissed Western accusations that it is hitting moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moscow also has rejected claims that its aircraft have hit civilians, insisting that all casualties have been at extremist facilities away from populated areas.