Led forces 'killed, hurt 300 Russians' in Syria

Mikhail Tereshchenko  TASS

The Kremlin has denied any Russian military members were involved in the incident, "We've already said all that we could say on this topic, we have nothing to add", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday, as quoted by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

"According to preliminary data, as a result of the armed conflict, the causes of which are being clarified, and five people, presumably Russian citizens, could have been killed", Zakharova said in a briefing.

The timing of the casualties coincided with a battle on February 7 near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor where, according to United States officials and associates of the fighters involved, US-led coalition forces attacked forces aligned with Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Asked if the need was due to Russians fighting in Syria, Yemelyanov told AFP that it's "because it's not just Russians fighting there" and because private military companies are legal in many countries.

Several Russia-based journalists reported that the Vesti.ru state news website covered the Reuters report early on Friday before later deleting the story.Cached versions of the article show Vesti.ru's report published early Friday being shared on Facebook and Russian social media. "In eastern Syria, the Russian Ministry of Defense can say, 'We don't know they were doing this.' But it's very likely this had some kind of direction from higher-ups in the Kremlin".

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said initial information was that five Russian citizens in the area of the battle may have been killed, but they were not Russian troops. Some reports put Russian losses at 200 or more, and a growing chorus of politicians and commentators slammed the Kremlin for failing to acknowledge the casualties.

The coalition claimed that it carried out airstrikes against "Syrian pro-regime forces" that launched an "unprovoked attack" on Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces' headquarters and killed an estimated 100 militiamen.

The Pentagon has said the USA -backed coalition contacted the Russians through the "deconfliction" telephone line to make them aware of the unprovoked attack.

Moscow acknowledged for the first time Thursday that five Russian nationals may have been killed in the USA -led airstrike in Syria last week but denied reports the loss of life among its citizens was significantly higher.

"First of all the bombers attacked, and then they cleaned up using Apaches (US-made attack helicopters)", Shabayev said, citing the wounded men he visited in hospital.

So how do we know the Russians attacked USA forces in Deir ez-Zor deliberately? "I have no idea why they would attack there, the forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew", he said.

The aim was to test if the US-led coalition would react.

The doctor who spoke to Reuters said most of the casualties were Russian private military contractors.

An anonymous source told Reuters that Bloomberg's report that 300 Russians died was "broadly correct". He does not know if the warning was passed on to the contractors.

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