Russia says it has begun pulling out troops from Crimea after drills

MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday it had begun returning troops and military units from annexed Crimea to their permanent bases following a huge build-up near Ukraine’s border that had raised concerns in Kyiv and the West about the risk of war.

Russia announced on Thursday it had completed a “snap inspection” of military drills in its south and west after weeks of tensions with the West over its concentration of tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine.

Ukraine gave a guarded welcome to the troop drawdown.

“If Russia really pulls back from the border with Ukraine the enormous military force it has deployed there, this will already ease tensions,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement.

“But we need to remember that this step would not put an end neither to the current escalation, nor to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in general.”

Washington has said it is waiting to see what actions follow Moscow’s announcement and it will “continue to watch very closely”.

On Friday, Russia said troops from its southern military district and airborne troops that took part in the snap inspection were beginning to rebase.

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It said that military units and formations were marching to railway loading stations and airfields.

It aired footage of armoured vehicles boarding landing ships on a beach and other military vehicles being loaded onto trains. Soldiers were shown marching onto a military aircraft.

A confirmed pullout of the troops brought in on top of the permanent contingent will likely be welcomed by Western countries which had been expressing alarm at the prospect of further Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian government in the region since 2014.

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