Report: US strike kills Russian military contractors in Syria
An unknown number of private Russian military contractors were killed by a U.S. strike in Syria, Russian media reported Tuesday in a development that could further inflame Russia-U.S. tensions.
Officials in both Moscow and Washington remained coy about the deaths, which would be an embarrassment for both countries if it turns out that Russian fighters were part of a unit that attacked a military force with American troops.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refrained from commenting on reports about the incident last week, saying they need to be verified.
Asked during a conference call with reporters if Putin raised the episode during a phone conversation Monday with President Donald Trump, Peskov said the situation in Syria wasn’t discussed during the call.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that Russia has told the U.S. there were no Russians in the area of the strike. Mattis said he saw the news reports about Russian contractors possibly being casualties of the bombing.
“I don’t have any reporting that some non-Russian Federation soldiers, but Russian contractors were among the casualties,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him in Europe. “I can’t give you anything on that. We have not received that word at Central Command or the Pentagon.”
Russian media said the Russian private contractors were part of pro-government forces that advanced on oil fields in the eastern Deir el-Zour province and were targeted by the United States. The reports cited activists who confirmed that at least four Russian citizens were killed in Syria.
During the war in Syria, Russia and the United States have maintained a communications channel to avoid collisions between their warplanes and soldiers in the chaotic battlefield.
If Russian deaths from the U.S. strike are confirmed, it would mean the two countries were on the verge of a direct military confrontation in Syria.