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Russia's defense minister visits Syria and meets with President Bashar Assad

Russia's defense minister visits Syria and meets with President Bashar Assad
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visits the Hemeimeem air base in Syria on June 18, 2016. (Vadim Savitsky / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service pool photo via Associated Press)

Russia's defense minister visited Syria on Saturday to meet the country's leader and inspect the Russian air base there, a high-profile trip intended to underline Moscow's role in the region.

Sergei Shoigu met with President Bashar Assad in Damascus for talks that focused on cooperation between the two militaries and "some aspects of cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups," the Russian Defense Ministry said. It said Shoigu held talks with Assad on orders from President Vladimir Putin.

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The visit comes a day after Putin suggested that some in the Syrian opposition could join the Cabinet to help advance the stalled peace process.

Shoigu also visited the Hemeimeem air base in the province of Latakia, where he met with pilots and inspected their quarters, according to the Defense Ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

Russia has conducted an air campaign in Syria since September, helping Assad's forces win back some ground. Putin pulled back some of Russia's warplanes in March in what he described as a move to help encourage peace talks, but the military has maintained a strong presence at Hemeimeem.

A U.S.- and Russian-brokered cease-fire that began Feb. 27 has helped reduce hostilities, but fierce fighting has continued in many areas, particularly around Aleppo. The Islamic State group and the Al Qaeda branch in Syria, Al Nusra Front, have been excluded from the truce.

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