Thursday 12 December 2019

Russia says five of its citizens died in US strike in Syria

Moscow insisted the casualties were not members of Russia’s Armed Forces.

A view of Kremlin' Grand Kremlin Palace, centre, Towers, Churches and frozen Moskva (Moscow) river (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
A view of Kremlin' Grand Kremlin Palace, centre, Towers, Churches and frozen Moskva (Moscow) river (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Russia has acknowledged that five of its citizens have been killed by a US strike in Syria, the first time Russians have died at US hands in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova emphasised that the five victims were not Russian servicemen.

“According to preliminary information, five people, presumably Russian citizens, may have been killed in combat, the circumstances of which are being clarified,” Ms Zakharova said in a briefing. “Some others have been injured, and it’s still necessary to check whether they are citizens of Russia or other nations.”

Until Thursday, both Russian and US officials said they had no information on Russian casualties in the February 7 clash, which came when pro-Syrian government forces attacked positions of the US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour and faced a ferocious US counterattack.

Ms Zakharova would not describe how the Russians died, saying the circumstances of the clash are still being clarified, but her statement amounted to official recognition that the victims were part of the force that advanced on positions of the US-backed fighters.

It marks the first time Russian and US operatives have become directly engaged in combat in Syria, a scenario Moscow and Washington have anxiously sought to avoid.

On the chaotic Syrian battlefield, Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in the fight against opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States, and elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria.

The US military has said it maintained contact with the Russian military in Syria before, during and after the February 7 clash. The Russian Defence Ministry insisted its troops were not involved in the incident, saying 25 Syrian volunteers were wounded in the US strike.

But Russian news media and social networks swirled with reports of the combat, describing how US aircraft decimated Russian private military contractors who sought to take control over an oil factory near Khusham. Some reports put Russian losses at 200 or more, and a growing chorus of politicians, commentators and bloggers slammed the Kremlin for failing to acknowledge the casualties.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said some Russian citizens could be in Syria but the Kremlin doesn’t have any information about them. Pressed by reporters in Thursday’s conference call whether Mr Putin ordered information about Russian casualties kept from the public, Mr Peskov denied that.

Along with the Russian military, which has waged a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government since September 2015, thousands of Russians have also reportedly fought there as private contractors. The private fighters allow the Kremlin to keep the official death toll from its campaign in Syria low, helping to avoid negative publicity about Russia’s involvement in Syria as Mr Putin runs for re-election in the country’s March 18 presidential vote.

PA Media

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