Kremlin Distances Itself From Reports Of Mercenary Deaths In Syria

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Scores of Russian mercenaries were reportedly killed when USA forces carried out air strikes against a pro-regime force in eastern Syria last week, according to United States and Russian reports.

Bloomberg, citing an unnamed USA official and three Russians, reported Tuesday that "scores" of Russians were killed in last week's strike in Deir ez-Zour province.

Last week, the USA military said it unleashed air and artillery barrage on Syrian government-backed troops after an estimated 300 attackers launched what appeared to be a coordinated assault on Syrian opposition forces accompanied by U.S. advisers in the province of Deir el-Zour.

The deadly raids were the biggest direct clash between USA and Russian forces since the end of the Cold War.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on reports of Russian casualties, saying the Kremlin only tracks data on the country's armed forces.

Russian mercenaries have been reported in Syria before.

They are believed to have been employed by a private Russian company called Wagner. However, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura joined Russia's, and Iran's attempts to mediate negotiations hoping they would revive Geneva's peace process. It was then that the Russian liaison officer contacted the SDF again, asking for a pause to collect those killed in the US strikes, according to Hassan's account as narrated by Ignatius.

"If Russians are among those who were killed, this would mark the first time a United States air strike has killed Russians in Syria", CBS News' David Martin reported. "I advise you to contact the defence ministry".

The proposition that the attempted assault was not cleared with Russia's "official" military is also supported by the Kremlin's muted reaction to the event.

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In an interview with Russian Izvestia newspaper on Tuesday, Bogdanov said that the basis on which the efforts for maintaining Syria's unity and preventing all attempts to undermine it is the UN Security Council resolution no. 2254 and the basic principles of worldwide law based on the UN charter.

However, Russian law forbids the hiring of mercenaries or working as one. In recent days, rumors swirled online in Russian Federation that large numbers of those military contractors had perished under American fire. "We're dealing with an unusual situation", though it shouldn't be blown out of proportion, he said.

Leader of the Cossack forces in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave Maksim Buga put the number of people killed at "dozens", while speaking to Reuters.

The U.S. airstrike took place the same day an Iranian drone was shot down over Israel on Saturday, prompting a counter-attack by the Israeli Air Force into Syria against Iranian and regime targets.

"I know he didn't die alone", said Alexander Averin, a spokesman for a far-left Other Russia party, describing the death in Syria of party member Kirill Ananyev.

The Syrian conflict, which began as an uprising against Bashar al Assad's government during the Arab Spring in 2011, has ravaged the country and turned into a 16-year war.

A USA official put the death toll at 100, with 200 to 300 injured, but was unable to say how many were Russian. Strelkov wrote on his Vkontakte page on February 10 about "several hundred" killed and injured Russian mercenaries.

The Russian Defence Ministry says the incident on February 7 reflects a USA push to grab Syria's economic assets under the cover of fighting ISIL.

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