Europe

Russian stars sing for Syria troops near Latakia

Russian pop singers Yulia Chicherina (L) and Zara (R) Image copyright Rossiya 1
Image caption Russian singers Yulia Chicherina (L) and Zara (R) were among the performers on a mission to boost morale

British troops in World War Two had "forces' sweetheart" Vera Lynn to buoy their spirits, then comedian Bob Hope entertained the US army in Vietnam and Jennifer Lopez sang in Afghanistan.

For Russia's airmen and their support crews in Syria, a New Year morale boost came from what state TV dubbed a "celebrity task force", including female singers Yulia Chicherina and Zara.

"In war there is a place for love," sang Chicherina, a rock star from the Urals, at the Russian airbase in Hmeimim near Latakia.

She strummed the ukulele as she sang, with a control tower behind her and sandbags piled up to form what looked like a gun emplacement.

The camera also homed in on a couple of silver medals on her black top.

Yulia Chicherina is one of several entertainers, including veteran crooner and MP Iosif Kobzon, blacklisted by the Ukrainian authorities for performing in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Yulia Chicherina has appeared on stage in Crimea as well as separatist-run eastern Ukraine
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iosif Kobzon is a staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his domestic and foreign policies

The air force at Hmeimim had already been treated to a performance by glamorous pop star Zara, who swished around the makeshift stage just before New Year in a long red gown.

The two concerts also featured some of the armed forces' own performers, including dancing sailors and military bands.

Messages of support

Keeping up morale is clearly an important priority for the Russian military top brass.

Russia is helping the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and their allies from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah against anti-government rebels and jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

Image copyright AFP
Image caption State TV says Russian warplanes are waging a carefully targeted offensive against "terrorists"

In his address to Russians on New Year's Eve, President and Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin had a special holiday message for "our service personnel who are fighting international terrorism, defending Russia's national interests on distant frontiers, showing willpower, determination and strength of character".

The visiting entertainers also had words of support.

"I am full of admiration, as I think is the whole country, for the exploits carried out every day in the name of the fight against the terrorist threat, so it does not reach the borders of our country," Zara told news website Gazeta.ru.

In its coverage of the concerts for the troops, state TV has also kept on driving home the message that the Russian air force is waging a relentless and carefully targeted war against IS and other "terrorists".

"Musical chords are accompanied by the roar of warplane engines," ran the headline on state-run channel Rossiya 1.

Its correspondent spoke of sorties continuing "day and night", with Russian bombers carrying out "precision strikes".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Vera Lynn was the "forces' sweetheart" of British troops during World War Two

But human rights campaigners have accused Moscow of using indiscriminate force. A recent report by Amnesty International has said that between September and November Russian attacks killed at least 200 civilians in Syria.

The Russian defence ministry dismissed the report as full of "cliches and fakes".

The performances will no doubt remind some Soviet army veterans of the concerts in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Russian forces were last stationed abroad for any length of time on combat duty.

Among the leading troop entertainers in that period was Kobzon, who, as one veteran recalled, would perform from the back of a truck accompanied by five female backing singers and a record player.

Kobzon made a total of nine visits to Afghanistan during the war there.

Profile: Iosif Kobzon, Russian crooner and MP

But, according to singer Ruslan Alekhno, who was on the same bill as Zara, not all Russian entertainers are happy to support the troops.

"I won't name names, but I will say frankly: a very great many refused to go," he told Gazeta.ru.

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