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FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia November 20, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

(reuters_tickers)

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin told his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in a new year's greeting that Russia will continue supporting Syria's efforts to defend its sovereignty, the Kremlin said on Saturday.

Putin stressed that Russia would "continue to render every assistance to Syria in the protection of state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, in the promotion of a political settlement process, as well as in efforts to restore the national economy," the Kremlin said.

Earlier this month Putin ordered the Russian forces in Syria to start withdrawing from the country, but said Russia would keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province as well as its naval facility at Tartous "on a permanent basis".

Russia first launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015 in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad's favour.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Reuters