Amid a spate of media reports suggesting that a large number of Russian mercenaries were killed by U.S. strikes in Syria last week, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman says the Kremlin has “no information” about the matter.
Citing an unnamed U.S. official and three Russians it said were familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported on February 13 that “U.S. forces killed scores of Russian contract soldiers” in the incident on February 7.
Bloomberg cited two of its Russian sources as saying that more than 200 mercenaries, most of them Russians, were killed in an unsuccessful attack on a base and refinery held by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in the Deir al-Zor region.
It cited an unnamed Russian “mercenary commander” as saying that the toll was still rising and that dozens of fighters under his command were being treated at military hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Bloomberg report is one of several that have been published about the incident in recent days. If they are accurate, it would be the first known case of Russian citizens being killed by a U.S. air strike in Syria.
The U.S. military said last week that it launched air strikes on Syrian government-backed troops after as many as 500 attackers began what appeared to be a coordinated assault on Syrian opposition forces accompanied by U.S. advisers in Deir al-Zor.
U.S. military spokesman Thomas Veale told Bloomberg that coalition forces were in “regular communication” with the Russian military throughout the incident.
“Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity,” Veale said.
The Russian Defense Ministry has said that none of its soldiers was in the area and that pro-government fighters who were involved had failed to coordinate their actions with the Russian military.
But Russians are known to have fought in the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and Syria as paid contractors, and CBS News reported on February 8 that an unnamed Pentagon official confirmed that Russian mercenaries were killed in the incident.
The unnamed U.S. official cited by Bloomberg put the death toll at about 100, with 200 to 300 wounded.
The Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which monitors Russian involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, on February 12 posted the names of three Russians — Aleksei Ladygin of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow, and Stanislav Matveyev and Igor Kosoturov of Asbest, in the Urals — it said were among the killed.
A Cossack organization in Kaliningrad posted on social media that one of its members, Vladimir Loginov, had also been killed, the Conflict Intelligence Team reported.
Asked about the reports, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow on February 13 that the government only knows about the actions of the Russian military in Syria.
“We don’t have information about other Russians who might be in Syria,” he said.
Russia has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government crucial support throughout the seven-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protests.
Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in his favor by a launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.
The reports of numerous Russian deaths in the incident in Deir al-Zor came amid persistent tension in U.S.-Russian relations, which are strained by disputes over Syria and several other issues.
They also come weeks ahead of a March 18 election in which Putin is widely expected to secure a fourth term as president.
In a surprise trip to Russia’s air base in Syria in December, Putin said that Russian and government forces had “crushed” terrorists and ordered a partial withdrawal of the Russian contingent there.
On February 12, liberal presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky called on Putin to report publicly about “the actions of Russian troops in Syria at present and the number of deaths of Russian citizens regardless of their military status.”
“I also think it is essential to account publicly on interactions with the United States, since the danger of an accidental or intentional direct military engagement between Russia and the United States is growing,” Yavlinsky said in a statement.
With reporting by Bloomberg, AP, Interfax, and CBS News